No one should question that we are saved by “calling on the name of the Lord” for the Bible clearly states that we are (Joel 2:32; as quoted in Acts 2:21; Romans 10:13). The question to be asked is, “What does calling on the name of the Lord mean?” Does it mean to call out and say, “Lord, Lord”? Does it mean to pray or to say the “sinner’s prayer”? What does it mean?
The Meaning of “Call” in the Old Testament
“Call” (Joel 2:32) is the translation of the Hebrew qara. It appears in the OT over 711 times and is used of giving a person a name, preaching, crying to God, and God calling to man. Only the context can determine its meaning in each case. Prayer to God is not an intrinsic meaning of the word.
The Meaning of “Call” in the New Testament
In the NT the Greek word epikaleo, used in “call on the name” (Acts 2:21; 22:16; Romans 10:13), is a compound verb epi, meaning “on” “upon;” and kaleo, “call,” and appears 32 times:
- 11 times of a surname, the name by which one is called (Matt. 10:3; Luke 22:3; Acts 1:23; 4:36; 10:5, 18, 32; 11:13; 12:12, 25; 15:22).
- 6 times of Paul’s appeal for Caesar to hear his case (Acts 25:11, 12, 21, 25; 26:32; 28:19).
- 6 times to call on the name (Acts 2:21; 9:14, 21; 22:16; Rom. 10:13; 1 Cor. 1:2).
- 6 times call on God, Him, Lord, Father (Acts 5:59; Rom. 10: 12, 14; 2 Cor. 1:13; 2 Tim. 2:22; 1 Pet. 1:17).
- 3 times to be called by a name (Acts 15:17; 11:26; James 2:7).
Call on the Name of the Lord
In the NT, when epikaleo means “call on,” it carries the meaning of “to appeal,” and “to invoke.” Paul wanted his case to be heard by Caesar, thus he made his appeal to appear before him. He did not pray to Caesar.
An appeal can be made in different ways. A beggar may call for help by holding out his hand, another by the expression on his face, while another might call on someone for help. We can also appeal for a benefit when we do what another person tells us to do to receive that benefit.
The questions to be asked are how does a person make an appeal in the name of the Lord, when can he make the appeal, is the appeal in the form of a prayer, and is a verbal appeal what is meant?
Is a Verbal Call All that Is Required?
Does “calling on the name of the Lord” include all that is necessary for salvation? Will a person be saved who verbally says, “Lord,” who has not heard about Jesus, does not believe in Jesus (Romans 10:13, 14), is unwilling to change his way of living to please Jesus (Acts 3:19), and will not confess Jesus (Matthew 10:32, 33)? If these are also necessary because they are taught in other places in the Bible, then why would baptism not also be included, which is also said to be necessary?
Jesus taught that simply calling on the Lord’s name is not enough. He said, “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). In the day of judgment, Jesus will reply to many who say, “Lord, Lord,” by saying, “I never knew you” (Matthew 7:22).
Jesus taught that besides saying, “Lord, Lord,” God’s will must be obeyed. What is the Father’s “will” as revealed by Jesus (John 12:49, 50) and the apostles who were given His word through the Holy Spirit (John 14:26)? Clearly, they taught that baptism is necessary in order to be forgiven and before being saved (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21). Just calling out “Lord, Lord” is not all the Bible teaches as necessary. God’s will must be done.
Jesus said, “But why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do the things which I say?” (Luke 6:46) Calling a person “Lord” implies a willingness to accept Him as Lord and to do what he says. A slave might say “Master, Master,” but such are empty words if he will not respond to him as his master. Calling Jesus “Lord” should mean that we will respond to Him as Lord. If this is not true, our statement would betray those that do not accept him as Lord. Those who call Jesus, “Lord” and are unwilling to be baptized to be saved are not respecting Him as Lord, thus they make known that they do not believe in Him as Lord and in their hearts they are not calling Him “Lord.”
The Context of Acts 2:21
The context of Acts 2:21 will show that just calling out, “Lord, Lord,” or praying is not what is meant by “call.” After Peter quoted this passage and convinced many Jews that Jesus is Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36, 37, 41), he answered their question as to what they were to do to be forgiven of the crime of crucifying Jesus who is Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36).
Peter said, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38).
In response to Peter’s statement, 3,000 were baptized in respect to the authority of Jesus’ name. He did not tell them to say, “Lord,” pray, or simply call out for forgiveness in Jesus’ name. Peter did not interpret Joel to mean that calling on Jesus’ name meant prayer. Peter knew it meant to respond in His name to Him as Lord.
Calling on the Name of the Lord at Baptism
Like Saul of Tarsus, we are to call on the name of the Lord when we are being baptized (Acts 22:16). Saul/Paul had come to believe in Jesus, had repented, and began to fast and pray after Jesus appeared to him (Acts 9:9, 11). To Paul, calling on the name of the Lord did not include prayer, but obedience by being baptized.
When a person is baptized, an appeal is to be made in Jesus’ name (Acts 2:38; 8:16; 10:48; 19:5), and based upon His authority (Colossians 3:17; 2 Thessalonians 3:6, 12). Paul understood this, for when Ananias told him to be baptized “calling on the name of the Lord,” he did not begin to pray or call on Jesus’ name for his sins to be washed away; but, he immediately arose and was baptized (Acts 9:18).
Properly understood, calling on the name of the Lord is necessary in order to be saved, which means in the act of baptism we make our appeal in Jesus’ name for our sins to be forgiven. People who correctly call on Jesus as Lord are those who willingly do His will. Those who are unwilling to submit to Him as Lord are hypocritical if they call on His name and refuse to obey Him. By their actions they are denying Him as Lord by not obeying Him as Lord, even though they may be “calling” on His name. Those whose sins will be washed away are those who make their appeal in the name of the Lord when they are baptized.