Call Upon the Name of the Lord
The phrase, “Whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved,” is used three times in the Bible—once in Joel 2:32 as part of a prophetic account, once in Acts 2:21 by the Apostle Peter during his address at Pentecost, and once in Romans 10:13 by the Apostle Paul in his address to the Roman church.
It is a phrase that is interpreted in several ways. Does it refer to praying, to worship or to a specific act of faith? For certain it pertains to salvation, which is the result of the act of calling. Salvation is the most common biblical term used to denote the three-fold change that pertains to a person who by faith alone in Christ alone receives it. A person who avails himself of such (1) is saved from the guilt and penalty of sin (Ephesians 2:5, 8), (2) is being saved from the habit and dominion of sin in this life (Galatians 2:19, 20), and (3) will be saved from the curse and physical results of sin (Romans 8:18-23).
One aspect of this phrase of calling on the name of the Lord, in all three passages, was and is to convey the truth that God will save both Jew and Gentile; that everyone, regardless of nationality or race may be the recipient of eternal life by the grace and mercy of God through His Son, Jesus Christ. This element of its meaning is without challenge. The difference in interpretation and application resides in the term, “call.”
Well intentioned ministers of God will often use this phrase to support their contention that a person is saved by saying a prayer, often referred to as the “sinner’s prayer.” And even if these ministers don’t intend on conveying that “a prayer is the vehicle that saves” a person, this is the meaning that may often be understood by the person who is lost. The danger then is that the lost person may believe it is his expression of prayer to God that saves him, rather than a fundamental decision of faith in Jesus Christ. When this is the case, a person’s faith is displaced from Christ to one’s own effort in prayer; thereby making salvation an acquisition by “works”—an act that can save no one. Yet, it is not wrong to encourage a lost person to express his faith in Christ in an expression of prayer, as long as he clearly understands that salvation (righteousness) comes from his decision of faith in Christ and His sacrifice, which is made in his heart (an expression meaning a genuine and willful decision) prior to saying the prayer.
The Hebrew (gara) and Greek (epikaleomai) words that are translated call in these phrases may be used to convey several meanings. But when it comes to the subject of salvation, especially as they are used with the prepositions in Hebrew and Greek that are collectively translated “on,”—at times translated “in” or “into”—they are best understood as “an expression of faith made within one’s will and focused in a particular direction.” And the direction to which one’s faith is directed is in the person of the Lord (all that the name means), which implies recognition and acceptance of Christ as God and Savior.
In Genesis 4:26 it is recorded that starting with the children of Adam that “then began men to call upon the name of the Lord.” In Genesis 12:8, Abram (Abraham) constructed an altar on a mountain between Bethel and Hai and “called upon the name of the Lord.” These acts of calling upon the Lord were not mere acts of prayer; they were acts of faith, by which men expressed their genuine confidence (trust) in God as they came to Him in recognition and worship. In fact, Abraham is primarily honored in the New Testament for his great faith (Hebrews 11:8-10, 17) and regarding the subject of salvation (righteousness) it is repeated several times in the New Testament that Abraham acquired such only by faith (Romans 4:3; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23). When one considers Abraham, the Father of Israel, one cannot but be convinced that he was a man after God’s own heart due to his faith.
In Acts 2, the Apostle Peter makes it clear what it means to call upon the name of the Lord, by equating it with repentance in verse 38. The meaning of repentance in the New Testament is an act of “changing one’s mind or direction.” It is not penance (sorrow) for one’s sins. In verse 38 the term repentance is the equivalent to placing one’s genuine faith in Jesus Christ, because it is only by placing one’s total confidence (trust) in Jesus Christ, which act includes the turning from any other confidence (works, religion, other persons), that a person can be saved (Ephesians 2:8, 9).
To call upon the name of the Lord as expressed in Romans 10:13 is defined in verse 10 by the words, “for with the heart man believes unto righteousness.” There are about 150 passages in the New Testament in which there is only one requirement placed upon man (as his part) for the acquisition of eternal life (salvation), such requirement expressed as either believe or faith (both meaning a confident trust) in the person and work of Jesus Christ. And this, more than anything else, assures the reader of God’s Word that it is the expression of one’s genuine faith in Christ that is the meaning of call upon the name of the Lord.
Let there be no mistake, no misunderstanding. For a person who comes to the realization that he is lost and needs to be saved, he may only obtain salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. He need only understand that Jesus Christ, God in human form, took his sins and paid the penalty-price for his sins by His sacrifice on the cross of Calvary, and he need only make a genuine and willful decision to totally trust in Jesus and His payment for his sin in order to be instantly and permanently saved (granted eternal life).
In doing this he is certainly calling upon the name of the Lord. Now if subsequent to such a decision, the person would like to pray what some call a “sinner’s prayer,” he is perfectly free to do so, as long as he understands that it was his decision to trust Christ that apprehends his salvation and not his prayer.