“Calling On The Name Of The Lord” Is NOT The “Sinner’s Prayer!”  

By: Mark Tabata (Evangelist)

It is one of the most commonly made claims, and is heard so often in the religious world that people often do not give it a second thought.

It is one of those beliefs which has become synonymous with Christianity in America and is often accepted without even passing investigation.

It is the claim that Jesus will save a person who prays a sinner’s prayer.

Usually, the claim goes something like this:

“Jesus has promised that whoever calls on the name of The Lord will be saved. So whoever you are and wherever you find yourself, simply pray these words: ”

“Lord Jesus, I am a sinner. I believe that You died for me, and that You will save me from my sin. I invite you into my heart. In Your Name I pray, Amen.”

This prayer (and its’ equivalent) is found throughout the religious world. Repentance may (sometimes) be enjoined, but the subject of baptism is hardly associated with the subject of salvation. 

Many teach that the “sinner’s prayer” is authorized by the phrase “calling on the name of The Lord.” Is this true?

In order to answer that question, let’s turn to a careful study of Scripture.

Joel’s Prophecy

One of the most often quoted passages regarding “calling on the name of The Lord” is found in the second chapter of the Book of Joel. We read:

Joel 2:32-And it shall come to pass That whoever calls on the name of the LORD Shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be deliverance, As the LORD has said, Among the remnant whom the LORD calls.

Notice that specific phrase “whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.” 

What does Joel mean by this phrase? The fact is, there are several things the phrase means in Scripture: context must determine its’ specific meaning.

Sometimes the phrase sometimes carries with it the idea of “prayer.” 

For example:

2 Kings 18:24-37-24    Then you call on the name of your gods, and I will call on the name of the LORD; and the God who answers by fire, He is God.” So all the people answered and said, “It is well spoken.” 25    Now Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, “Choose one bull for yourselves and prepare it first, for you are many; and call on the name of your god, but put no fire under it.” 26    So they took the bull which was given them, and they prepared it, and called on the name of Baal from morning even till noon, saying, “O Baal, hear us!” But there was no voice; no one answered. Then they leaped about the altar which they had made. 27    And so it was, at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, “Cry aloud, for he is a god; either he is meditating, or he is busy, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is sleeping and must be awakened.” 28    So they cried aloud, and cut themselves, as was their custom, with knives and lances, until the blood gushed out on them. 29    And when midday was past, they prophesied until the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice. But there was no voice; no one answered, no one paid attention. 30    Then Elijah said to all the people, “Come near to me.” So all the people came near to him. And he repaired the altar of the LORD that was broken down. 31    And Elijah took twelve stones, according to the number of the tribes of the sons of Jacob, to whom the word of the LORD had come, saying, “Israel shall be your name.” 32    Then with the stones he built an altar in the name of the LORD; and he made a trench around the altar large enough to hold two seahs of seed. 33    And he put the wood in order, cut the bull in pieces, and laid it on the wood, and said, “Fill four waterpots with water, and pour it on the burnt sacrifice and on the wood.” 34    Then he said, “Do it a second time,” and they did it a second time; and he said, “Do it a third time,” and they did it a third time. 35    So the water ran all around the altar; and he also filled the trench with water. 36    And it came to pass, at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near and said, “LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that You are God in Israel and I am Your servant, and that I have done all these things at Your word. 37    Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that You are the LORD God, and that You have turned their hearts back to You again.”

Here, the prophets of Baal “called upon” their god,” i.e., prayed unto him to bring the confirmation that they desired. In contrast, Elijah “called upon” his God, i.e., he sought His intervention. Several other passages in the Old Testament show us that this was a common usage of this phrase (cf. 2 Kings 5:11; Zechariah 13:9).

Sometimes the phrase is used to simply mean “worship God.”

For example:

Genesis 4:26-And as for Seth, to him also a son was born; and he named him Enosh. Then men began to call on the name of the LORD.

The phrase “call upon the name of The Lord” is often translated in the Contemporary English Version as “worship.” This reflects the common Jewish understanding that “calling on the name of The Lord” involved the worship of Jehovah. 

This goes right along with the idea of prayer: for prayer is one form of worship. The phrase was often used in the Old Testament and in extra-biblical Jewish texts to refer to prayer and worship:

“The expression “call on the Lord’s name” was familiar in Jewish texts, where it concerned especially praying to him, [642] as in the later Targum on this verse ( Tg . Joel 3:5), or praise (Jdt 16:1). Luke’s term for “call upon” ( ἐίικαλέω ) could also apply to a formal appeal to Caesar (as in Acts 25:11–12, 21; 26:32; 28:19), but it is the Lord who could grant true deliverance.” (Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: Volume I-Introduction And 1:1-2:47, 41529 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Academic)

While the phrase could have reference to prayer and worship, it also had reference to “knowing” God in intimate friendship. Hence, those who do not “know” God are those who do not “call” upon Him (Jeremiah 10:25).

There is a passage in the Old Testament which clearly explains the meaning of the phrase. The Prophet Zephaniah boldly declared:

Zephaniah 3:9-For then I will restore to the peoples a pure language, That they all may call on the name of the LORD, To serve Him with one accord.

God here explains to us the basic meaning of the phrase “calling on the name of The Lord.”

What is it? “Serving” Him; obeying Him; worshipping Him; devoting ourselves to Him and to His will. 

The word used here (abad) is variously translated as “serve, do, worship, service, work, keep,” etc.

Please notice that this is a a beautiful example of Hebrew parallelism, where a particular phrase is identified and described by a later phrase. 

Thus, the inherent and basic idea of “calling on the name of The Lord” is obeying Him in whatever He has declared.

When we turn to the New Testament, we are especially blessed to find inspired Apostles telling us precisely what the phrase meant in the context of “salvation.” 

The Apostle Peter quotes this passage to the people on Pentecost:

Acts 2:21-AND IT SHALL COME TO PASS THAT WHOEVER CALLS ON THE NAME OF THE LORD SHALL BE SAVED.’

What is significant here is the fact that this phrase clearly could NOT have meant a sinner praying a sinner’s prayer in this context.

Why? 

Simply stated, if “calling on the name of The Lord” meant to pray a sinner’s prayer, the people would not have needed to ask “what shall we do” (Acts 2:37); for they would have already known they simply needed to pray a sinner’s prayer. 

They surely understood that the phrase “calling on the name of The Lord” simply meant to obey Him; but they did not yet know how to do so.

Therefore, what do we find? 

Peter tells them:

Acts 2:38-Then Peter said to them, “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.

Something which I find very interesting is that the phrase “the name of” in Acts 2:21 is exactly the same phrase used in Acts 2:38, “in (on) the name of.” 

As Keener has pointed out:

“Peter’s sermon expounds at length on this final line from Joel, arguing that the Lord’s name on which his hearers must call in this salvific era is Jesus (2:21, 34, 38). [643] Thus Peter concludes by exhorting them to call on the Lord’s name by baptism in Jesus’s name (2:38). [644]” (Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: Volume I-Introduction And 1:1-2:47, 41529-41536 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Academic)

Brother Everett Ferguson has noted:

“The distinctive nature of the baptism commanded is that it is “in the name [ἐπì τ ὀνóματι] of Jesus Christ.” Since Acts employs three different prepositions to describe baptism in the name of Christ, a separate section below will discuss the variations in this formula…As such, the ἐπì τ ὀνóματι may deliberately pick up the ἐπικαλέσηται τò ὄνoμα (“shall call upon the name”) of the Lord of 2:21 (= Joel 2:32). “Lord” in Joel is God; in Acts 2 “Lord” is Jesus.” (Everett Ferguson, Baptism In The Early Church: History, Theology, And Liturgy In The First Five Centuries, 3620-3629 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company).

Thus, non-Christians believers are told that “calling on the name of The Lord” is the equivalent of repenting of sin and being baptized into Christ Jesus. This was how God calls upon believers to “call upon the name of The Lord.”

Later, we see the same thing in the account of Ananias’ instruction to Paul. Remember that Paul had been praying for three days and nights as a believer who had repented of his sins (Acts 9:1-11). 

Now Ananias comes to him and tells him:
Acts 22:16-And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.’

Please notice that the phrase “calling on the name of The Lord” is synonymous with the command to “arise and be baptized.” The connection between these two is obvious.

As Keener has established:

“The expression τί μέλλεις can suggest “Why do you delay?” (cf. 4 Macc 6:23; 9:1). [976] This was essentially an exhortation to act immediately. [977] Baptisms were normally immediately after (or during) conversion (Acts 2:38; 10:47–48), and the question might resemble “What hinders baptism?” (8:36; 10:47). But already by classical Greek, the phrase had come to have the extended sense of simply urging action. [978] Luke elsewhere associates baptism with calling on Jesus’s name, as a concrete expression of that confession (2:21, 38). [979] That Jesus’s name is invoked reflects the centrality and importance of Jesus that pervaded the early Jesus movement. [980] The association of baptism with washing is natural, given the frequency of ritual lustrations throughout the ancient world. [981] The association of baptism with deliverance from sin appears elsewhere (Rom 6:3–6; Col 2:12; 1 Pet 3:21), though the same theological debates surround those texts as here.” (Craig S. Keener, Acts: An Exegetical Commentary: Volume 3:15:1-23:35, 26845-26860 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Academic)

Paul had already repented of his sins as a believer (Acts 9:6-11), so what he lacked now was baptism. Please notice that Paul had been praying for three days and nights already (Acts 9:11), but he had not yet “called on the name of The Lord.” 

This is one of the most clear passages of Scripture which demonstrate that “calling on the name of The Lord” in regard to being saved did not mean to pray a sinner’s prayer, but to obey His Gospel by repenting of sin and being baptized into Christ.

Let’s now turn our attention to something which the Apostle Paul stated regarding these matters:

Romans 10:9-13-9    that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10    For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. 11    For the Scripture says, “WHOEVER BELIEVES ON HIM WILL NOT BE PUT TO SHAME.” 12    For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. 13    For “WHOEVER CALLS ON THE NAME OF THE LORD SHALL BE SAVED.”

To understand this passage, we must place it in context.

Throughout Romans, Paul addresses those in the church of Christ at Rome who believe that the Jews should have a special privilege to God because they are the descendants of Abraham (Romans 9:14, 19; 11:19). 

In the context of Romans 10, Paul has pointed out in chapter 9 that God has the right to decide the means through which people will be saved from sin. He shows this from the examples of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Esau, and others. 

Then in chapter 10, he begins talking about his heart’s prayer and desire for Israel, i.e., that they will be saved (Romans 10:1-3).

It is extremely helpful to remember that when Paul addresses the Christians between Romans 9-11 (and usually through the entire Book), he addresses them with the pronoun “you” (simply study the 163 uses of this word in Romans). 

When Paul (in Romans 9-11) speaks of unbelieving Jews (i.e., the lost), how does he describe them? With the words “they” and “them” (cf. Romans 9:22-27, 32; 10:1-3).

With that in mind, when Paul speaks of those “confessing” with their mouths, who is he addressing?

“You.” 

“You” who?

Christians, of course!

This is not talking about non-Christians being saved; it is talking about Christians who keep on being saved. 

How? 

By continuing to confess and continuing to believe in Jesus Christ. 

Notice that in verse 10 the words “believe” and “confess” are in the present tense in the Greek New Testament, indicating not a one-time act but a continuous activity.

It is also helpful to recognize that the early Christians understood this to be referring to Christians who continued to believe in and confess Jesus Christ, beginning at the time of their baptism into Him:

“BAPTISMAL PROFESSION . AUGUSTINE : This condition is fulfilled at the time of baptism, when faith and profession of faith are all that is demanded for one to be baptized. T HE CHRISTIAN LIFE 13. 63 AUGUSTINE : This profession of faith is the creed which you will be going over in your thoughts and repeating from memory. THE CREED 1. 64 AUGUSTINE : We who expect to reign in everlasting righteousness can only be saved from this wicked world if while for our neighbor’s salvation we profess with our lips the faith which we carry about in our heart, we exercise a pious and careful vigilance to see that this faith in us is not sullied in any point of belief by the deceitful snares of heretics. F AITH AND THE CREED 1. 65” (Thomas Oden, iAncient Christian Commentary On Scripture: Romans, 12467 (Kindle Edition); New York, N.Y.; Routledge Taylor & Francis Group)

The Apostle is reminding the Christians (Romans 10:9–13) that it will be through their continuing to believe and confess Jesus Christ that their unbelieving neighbors will hear the Word of God (Romans 10:14-15). Although they have heard the Word through the Lord’s declaration in the Heavens (Romans 10:16-21), they need the special revelation that Christians are to deliver (cf. Romans 1:16).

The phrase “calling on the name of The Lord” does not have reference to the sinner’s prayer: it has reference to a person obeying God in whatever He has said to do. 

In reference to the non-Christian, it has reference to his repenting of sins and being baptized into Christ to have his sins washed away (Acts 2:21, 38; 22:16).

In regard to a Christian, it has reference to his continuing to obey God by continuing to believe and confess Jesus, which begins at the time of his baptism (Romans 10:9-13).

If you are part of a church that teaches a “sinner’s prayer” salvation, I kindly encourage you to study these matters and allow The Lord to lead you. He will do so-through His Word, the Bible (II Timothy 3:16-17).

The grace of The Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.

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