the Name of the Lord Shall Be Saved
Part 1: It Is Great News! But What Exactly Does It Mean?
Quoting Joel 2:32, the New Testament writers repeatedly affirm that those who call upon the Lord will be saved. Romans 10:13; Acts 2:21 This is good news.
Different Interpretations Exist
Since people have interpreted this phrase to mean many different things, the question which needs to be answered is, "what message were the New Testament authors trying to communicate?" Does this mean that as long as a person believes in Jesus and asks God to save him that he will be saved? Because of Acts 22:16, might this even mean that to call upon the Lord requires baptism? Or conversely, do Romans 10:13 and Acts 2:21 teach that one can be saved without being baptized? These are questions which need to be biblically answered, not intuitively answered.
Danger of Using An Intuitive Definition & Thereby Hearing One's Own Voice Instead of God's Word
There is a danger in assuming that my own intuitive understanding of what the New Testament is teaching by "calling upon the Lord" is accurate. If we should look at the text and simply see a reflection and confirmation of our own prior ideas and if the message we understand is not what the biblical authors intended to communicate, then we will have fallen victim to the stranglehold of self-deception caused by circular reasoning. Unfortunately, this can happen all too easily. In fact, sincere and genuine people can easily assume they are following the Bible when in fact they might be following their own thinking.
How can this happen to sincere people? Whenever people simply map their own definitions and understanding over the text, they will understand exactly what they already assumed. To be sure that we are not misunderstanding the phrase "to call upon the name of the Lord," we need to engage in careful Bible study.
Part 2: The Old Testament Background
A General Term for Worshiping Any Divine Being
The background for the New Testament's usage and understanding of this phrase comes not only from the prophet Joel but the entire Old Testament. In the Old Testament, "calling (qara') upon God" occurs as a general phrase to describe the act of worshiping any divine being. Pagans used this same terminology to describe their worship activities. Accordingly, Israel was warned against invoking the names of other gods. Exodus 23:13; Joshua 23:7 See also Hosea 2:17 Elijah instructed the prophets of baal to worship their gods by calling upon their names. 1 Kings 18:24, 25
Apparently it was common for both Israel as well as for other nations to use the phrase "calling upon" to designate a worshiper entreating or worshiping a deity. Accordingly, a pagan ship master exhorted Jonah to show devotion to his God by "calling upon your god." Jonah 1:6 As the storm raged against the boat, he gave Jonah the same instruction he would have given to any person aboard his ship who was not actively seeking help from his own god. Similarly, Naaman the Syrian assumed he knew how a prophet should heal him of leprosy. He thought that the prophet would make some magical or mysterious motions and spend some time in worshiping his own god. Naaman described this worship he expected Elisha to perform as calling on the name of the LORD his God. 2 Kings. 5:11
Examples of Usage Referring to Worshiping Yahweh
There are many passages in the Old Testament where worshiping God is described with some form of the phrase "call (qara') upon God." The point is that this is a general term for worship. The following excerpts are simply a few representative verses where this general term for worship is used: "... then began men to call upon the name of the Lord" Genesis 4:26; "Abram built an altar unto the LORD, and called upon the name of the LORD" Genesis 12:8; "I will call (qara') the name of the LORD: ascribe greatness unto our God" Deuteronomy 32:3; "In my distress I called (qara') upon the LORD; and cried (qara') to my God: and he did hear my voice out of his temple" 2 Samuel 22:7; "give thanks to the LORD; call upon his name: make known his deeds among the peoples" Psalms 105:1; "Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near" Isaiah. 55:6.
To Call upon the Lord describes "what" not "how"
To call upon the Lord describes what was being done (worshiping God), it does not prescribe or indicate the particular means for how that worship was being conducted (e.g. sacrifice, prayer, singing, etc.). It's basic meaning points to the devotion which someone is offering to God. Psalms 14:4; 80:18; 99:6; Isaiah 55:6; Jeremiah 29:12; Zephaniah 3:9; Hosea 11:7; Joel 2:32
In the Old Testament, sometimes a person called upon the Lord by sacrificing: Genesis 12:8; 13:4; 26:25; 1 Chronicles 21:26; Psalms 116:17 At other times it was used to refer to one's prayer to God: Deuteronomy 4:7; 1 Samuel 12:17; 2 Samuel 22:7; 1 Chronicles 4:10; Psalms 88:9; Jonah 2:2 Still at other times to call (qara') upon the Lord is found in the context of song and praise: Isaiah 12:4; Deuteronomy 32:3; Psalms 18:3; 66:17; 105:1-3; Jeremiah 44:26
Therefore, when one reads that someone called upon the Lord this simply informs the reader that a person was engaged in approaching the Lord in worship. The phrase to call upon the Lord does not reveal the details about how that person was worshiping God. To determine what form the worship took in any particular verse requires examining the specific context.
The Need to Call upon the Lord in Truth
In Isaiah 48 one learns that it is possible to call upon the name of the Lord and still be under God's wrath. Israel is described as being treacherous, a rebel and under God's wrath (Isaiah 48:8,9) and yet they were invoking the name of the Lord (Isaiah 48:1). Their problem was that they were not worshiping the Lord according to truth.
The Law made it very plain that Israel could not approach God on her own terms. It was God who made the people holy and who made approaching Him in worship possible. Furthermore, in His grace God had revealed through the Law how Israel was to approach their holy God. If Israel desired to enjoy a faithful relationship with God, she could not turn to either the left or to the right of what God had revealed. Accordingly, the Psalmist affirms that the Lord is near to all those who call upon him in truth. Psalms 145:18 In other words, to merely be engaged in some form of worship to the Lord was not enough. Israel had to conform to the truth which God had prescribed which meant that the lives of her people were to be holy, before God would accept the rituals of Temple worship. Isaiah 1 Accordingly, Jesus would echo these same concerns when he taught that today the Father seeks those who will worship Him in truth. John 4:24
Joel 2:32 - The Barrier and the Promise
Joel 2:32 was not written in a vacuum. It was a message from God's prophet to a covenant people who should have been faithfully following His Law. As the following brief section explains, God's covenant given at Mt. Sinai was for "member's only." This created a barrier between Israel and the other nations. Joel 2:32 heralds the great news that the day would be coming when even those beyond the borders of Israel (i.e. "everyone") will be able to call upon the name of the Lord and they will be saved.
Background to Joel 2:32 -The Barrier
During the time of Moses, through grace God offered to Israel a covenant of love relationship with Himself. Deuteronomy 4:13; 5:2; 7:12; 29:1, 12-14. This covenantal relationship resulted in Israel enjoying the privilege of becoming God's children and having God be their God. Leviticus 26:9-13; Exodus 6:7 Although this was good for Israel, it also resulted in building a barrier between them and the other nations. Leviticus 20:26; Deuteronomy 10:15; 14:2; 26:18-19 In order for a foreigner to enjoy the blessings God had offered to Israel, they had to first become a member of Israel.
The Message of Joel 2:32 - The Promise
In Joel 2:28-32, God promised that a time would come in the future when God's Spirit would no longer be limited to a certain group of people. The barriers would come down and God's Spirit would be poured out upon all people. A day was coming in which everyone who turned to worship the Lord would be saved! Or to put it in Joel's words, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved."
Part 3: The New Testament
Fulfillment of the Promise
The story of Jesus includes the good news that through Jesus salvation has been made available to all the peoples of the world. No longer is God's promise to Abraham that He would be his God and the God of his descendants limited to those physical descendants. In Ephesians 2:11-22, Paul describes how that those of us who were previously excluded from receiving the promises associated with God's covenant which had been made with Israel can now draw near to God because Jesus has destroyed the barrier which kept us out.
The New Testament's usage of Joel, "everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved" (Acts 2:21, Romans 10:13) points to this universality of salvation which has now been made available to all those who will come to God in truth. It is important to remember that the phrase "to call upon the name of the Lord" is a general term for worship and does not prescribe any details which may be required for how someone is to approach God.
According to the New Testament, How Does One Call Upon the Lord?
Following Christ's death and resurrection, Peter's sermon in Acts 2 represents the first time the gospel message which is based upon the salvation which Jesus' death and resurrection was preached. In that sermon, Peter quoted Joel by affirming, "And everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved." The barriers were finally down. Although the early church did not fully understand this until later (Acts 10-11), God had fulfilled the word He had spoken through His prophet.
But the quote from Joel does not tell us anything about how someone is supposed to call upon the Lord. It would be foolish and self-deceptive to simply claim this verse means what I want it to mean. Receiving comfort from self-deception is no comfort at all. Rather than make affirmations based upon assumptions, a thorough search of the New Testament is appropriate to ensure we understand God's message to us.
Here's what we find in the New Testament:
1) Like the Old Testament, the New Testament uses the idea of "calling upon the Lord" to indicate one's allegiance and worship. For example, Acts 9:14 "And he has authority here from the chief priests to bind all those who call upon your name." See also: Acts 9:21; Romans 10:12; 1 Corinthians 1:2; 2 Timothy 2:22
2) The Lord being called upon usually refers to Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:2; Acts 9:14, 21; 22:16), but it could refer to God the Father. 1 Peter 1:17
3) Paul encouraged Timothy to call upon the Lord out of a pure heart like other Christians were doing. 2 Timothy 2:22
4) To call upon the Lord to save you requires that you believe the message about Jesus (Romans 10:14), presumably this also involves confessing him (Romans 10:9-10) and being immersed to have your sins washed away. Acts 22:16
According to the New Testament how does one call upon Jesus for salvation? When as a result of hearing the gospel someone's belief in Jesus causes him to respond to the gospel message from his heart by being baptized, he calls upon the name of the Lord and his sins are washed away resulting in his becoming a servant of God. Acts 22:16; 2:38; Romans 6:16-17 The New Testament authors understood baptism as being an essential part of salvation by faith resulting in one being born again to become a child of God.
The teaching of Romans 6:16-17 is important. The context of these verses (Romans 6:2-11) indicates that the "form of teaching," which when obeyed from the heart was responsible for liberating someone from his sins, is baptism. Anyone who has not responded in this manner to the gospel message has not yet biblically called upon the Lord.
But what about Romans 10:9-14?
In Romans 9:30-10:21, Paul explains why Israel failed to receive the righteousness which comes by faith. Israel had allowed an obstacle to block her path (Romans 10:1-4). Paul used Deuteronomy 30:11-14 to teach that the righteousness which comes by faith requires that "the message," namely Jesus, becomes a belief in one's heart and a confession of one's lips (Romans 10:8-10). Since Israel had refused to acknowledge and internalized the message of Jesus, she had not received the blessings of faith in Christ. But since salvation is open to all who will call upon the Lord (Romans 10:11-13), that is, to all who will depend upon Jesus, even an Israelite would be saved if he would overcome this obstacle and respond to the message of Christ with his heart and his lips. And so Paul continued, "but not all Israel accepted the good news ..." Romans 10:16
Paul's use of this text functions to describe why Israel had not received the righteousness that comes by faith. By looking at the context, we can learn that Paul's statements were not intended to provide an exhaustive outline on how to become a Christian. To force these verses into being a handbook describing the total necessary response to the gospel rips them out of context and infuses them with a new meaning and a new function foreign to the apostle's mind.
Not only does the context of Romans 10 reveal that Paul's purpose in writing these verses revolves around addressing Israel's obstacle to faith, but Paul was writing to Christians, not pagans! The Christians at Rome already knew how to respond to the Jesus. Just as you don't tell a computer guru how to turn a computer on, so also you don't need to write a letter to Christians telling them how to depend upon Jesus for salvation. If someone wishes to find out how to become a Christian by trusting in Jesus, look at those messages or sermons which were delivered to non-Christians, not letters written to the Christian community.
The gospel message includes the wonderful news that everyone who calls upon the name of the Lord will be saved. This is a message which we need to loudly proclaim for it truly is good news.
Other articles which might be of interest:
Using A Napkin to Tell the Gospel (Simple diagram illustrating the gospel message)
What About the Thief on the Cross?
Is Requiring Obedience to the Gospel "Works Salvation"?
Doesn't Grace Mean that There Is No Prescribed Standard Which Must be Obeyed?
Copyright © 2000 Barry Newton, Revised Edition 2003