Chris asked this question in the comments:
Jay, what exactly does it mean to “call upon the Lord.” What Greek word is used here to denote this action? Is it a prayer? A plea? An appeal? Is it an outward display at all?
If someone said “so and so called upon the name of the Lord.” What’s the first thing one would think of?
Rom 10:13 “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Acts 2:21 “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Acts 22:16 “And now what are you waiting for? Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away, calling on his name.”
Very interesting questions. Thanks for asking. Here’s a rough, preliminary sketch of an answer.
The language is taken from Joel —
(Joel 2:32 ESV) 32 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls.
This in turn refers back to such passages as —
(Gen. 4:26 ESV) To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time people began to call upon the name of the LORD.
(Gen 12:8 ESV) From there he moved to the hill country on the east of Bethel and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east. And there he built an altar to the LORD and called upon the name of the LORD.
(Gen 13:4 ESV) to the place where he had made an altar at the first. And there Abram called upon the name of the LORD.
(Gen 21:33 ESV) Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba and called there on the name of the LORD, the Everlasting God.
(Gen 26:25 ESV) So he built an altar there and called upon the name of the LORD and pitched his tent there. And there Isaac’s servants dug a well
(1Ki 18:24 ESV) And you call upon the name of your god, and I will call upon the name of the LORD, and the God who answers by fire, he is God.” And all the people answered, “It is well spoken.”
(Psa 116:17 ESV) I will offer to you the sacrifice of thanksgiving and call on the name of the LORD.
The phrase has roots going back to Genesis and is associated with sacrifice although it’s not merely offering a sacrifice. Rather, it’s part of what it means to offer a sacrifice.
In short, to “call upon the name of the LORD” in the OT is to worship God or to serve God, that is, to claim the LORD as the god you worship as opposed to all others. Many of these OT passages speak in terms of someone choosing YHWH rather than any other deity as the object of worship and reverence.
Notice that the OT passages uniformly speak of YHWH (“LORD” in all caps) rather than some other divine name.
Interestingly, we find the same phrase in the prophets’ expectation that the Gentiles would be invited into God’s covenant people —
(Isa 65:1 ESV) I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me;
I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
to a nation that was not called by my name
(Zep 3:9 ESV) “For at that time I will change the speech of the peoples
to a pure speech,
that all of them may call upon the name of the LORD
and serve him with one accord.
In the NT, we see the same terminology, including —
(Act 2:21 ESV) And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.
(Rom 10:13 ESV) For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
(1Co 1:2 ESV) To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
In Acts 2:21 and Rom 10:13, the text explicitly refers to Joel 2:32. In fact, both passages are quotations of Joel 2:32 with Peter and Paul applying “LORD” to Jesus. And the amazing part of this is that “LORD” in the OT, when written in all caps, translates YHWH (or Yahweh) — the holiest of the names of God. Peter and Paul explicitly identify the LORD of the OT with Jesus of Nazareth. Paul further argues in 1 Cor 10 that several YHWH passages in the Torah refer to Jesus.
So in his sermon in Acts 2, Peter urges his audience — entirely Jews — to “call on the name of the LORD” for salvation, as Joel 2:32 urges, and yet good Jews would insist that they were already doing this — at the least twice a day at the Temple when a lamb was sacrificed on the altar before God. And so, implicit in Peter’s quotation of Joel 2:32, is the assertion that calling on God is not sufficient if Jesus of Nazareth is not included.
(Acts 2:36 ESV) 36 “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
In saying that God had made Jesus “Lord,” Peter was explicitly identifying him with YHWH and insisting worshiping God without including Jesus as Lord would no longer do. It’s not just that Jesus is the Messiah or God the Son. Jesus is the LORD on whose name we must call for salvation.
Peter then announced,
(Acts 2:38 ESV) 38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
That is, just as sacrifice in the OT was a means of calling on the name of the LORD, in Christianity, baptism becomes associated with calling on the name of Jesus as LORD. The response to “everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved” (Joel 2:32, quoted in Acts 2:21) is baptism “in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins” (Acts 2:38).
Now, there is nothing in the phrase “calling on the name of the LORD” specific to the Sinner’s Prayer or even to water baptism. Rather, the promise is given to those with faith in Jesus as Lord (Rom 10:9, 13). To confess that Jesus is LORD is to call upon the name of the LORD, bringing salvation as Joel promises — a promise repeatedly restated by the apostles.
The coming of the Spirit upon those with faith in Jesus, of course, was seen as confirming not just Joel’s prophecy but that the prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus and extended to the Gentiles.
Baptism was administered without controversy because it symbolized repentance, that is, the element of faith that requires the faithful to serve the LORD as Lord. The question of when salvation happened was not considered because baptism was administered immediately after a confession of faith.
In the Jew/Gentile controversy that takes up so much of Acts and Paul’s epistles, baptism was (among many other things) the church’s acknowledgement that this person was among the saved, a child of God, in Jesus, a part of the church, etc. It isn’t just an admission rite, but it is that as well. Having such a rite required the church to decide whether to accept a believing Gentile as a brother and mark the transition in the minds both of the converts and the congregation (as very clearly shown in the case of Cornelius).
Hence, faith in Jesus as LORD is central, but baptism is itself a confession of faith. These are not distinct, separate steps. Rather, repentance/confession/ faith/baptism all speak to the same thing — calling on the name of the LORD.
It’s not mere intellectual acceptance of who is the Lord of Hosts. It’s submission, symbolized in the OT by sacrifice and in the NT by baptism (among other things). In the OT, sacrifice to the LORD was to call on his name. It was to honor him as the God of this person and his household or tribe. Sacrifice symbolized a willingness to serve in a much bigger way than mere confession. Sacrifice was an ancient way of saying, “This is the God I serve and worship and count on for salvation — so much so that I will give up a part of my wealth and security in reliance on his promises.” To sacrifice a lamb in a society that might eat meat only weekly or monthly and that often lived on the verge of starvation was an act of great faith — demonstrating confidence in God’s provision.
Baptism in a sense takes the place of animal sacrifice. Rather, we die in baptism and count on God to raise us up as he raised up Jesus in newness of life. In fact, someone being baptized quite literally places his life in the hands of another. It’s an act of faith — but it’s also an act of submitting to co-crucifixion with Jesus — self-sacrifice. It’s a far greater sacrifice than a sheep. It’s an offering of oneself to be re-shaped into the image of God found in Jesus on the cross.
So, to me, submitting to baptism fills much the same place as OT sacrifice. Both are a way to call on the name of the LORD — by calling on the LORD to save while confessing whom we submit to as Lord.
Something like that.