There is a very real danger in trusting in religious ritual. Now not all ritual is wrong; God has ordained certain ordinances to serve His purposes. They are to remind us of what God has done (1 Corinthians 11:25; Exodus 12:14; Joshua 4:7). Also, they are to be a declaration of our faith in God (1 Corinthians 11:26), a sign to show others what we stand for (Romans 4:11), and a seal of the fact that we belong to God (Romans 4:11). We, as humans, need these things to remind us of what God has done for us and show others our commitment to Christ. The problem comes when we make the ritual itself the main thing and believe that just going through the ritual accomplishes something, regardless of the state of our heart (Isaiah 66:3). We can even make things that are not properly rituals, such as gathering with other believers (Hebrew 10:25), into rituals. The biggest error in this comes as regards salvation. God promises salvation based on faith in Christ’s death for sins and His resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-4; Romans 3:21-26; John 3:14-18). Now God does command certain ordinances to be done as a result of this (Matthew 28:19; Luke 22:17-20). But in the case of the thief who had faith but could perform no ordinances, Christ promised he would be with Him in paradise (Luke 23:39-43).
Sometimes, though, even as believers, we can start to think that just going through ritual will itself help us live for God. Now the ordinances can do this when they are used rightly. If they remind us of what God has done and become a vehicle for us to confess our faith, they can build us up in Christ. The error comes if we think that simply going through the motions of the ordinances commends us to God. What is worse is when we start to think that because we have gone through these rituals, we can live how we want or at least cut a few corners here and there. We put ourselves in the place of the Israelites who God wished would close the gate of His temple so as not to meaninglessly go through rituals when their lives did not match up (Malachi 1:10,11). Now our obedience to God should not be in order to earn something from Him (Titus 3:4-7), but out of love and thanksgiving to God for a salvation already received (1 John 4:19; 2 Corinthians 5:14,15; Titus 3:8). The ordinances of God can be a meaningful expression of that love. But when taken out of context, rituals can become simply something we do to justify ourselves before God; they are therefore worthless. Now God reveals that religious privilege without inward reality is under judgment (Romans 2:17-24), and we as believers should beware that we do not become imitators of those who follow this error.