What Does it Mean to Call on the Name of the Lord?

Apr 7, 2020 | Article, Bible Q & A, Christian Living, Divine Council, Podcast, Theology

“The name of the Lord” is a phrase used throughout Scripture by multiple different authors. I wonder if we truly grasp what it really means, though, to call upon his name?

I get the sense that this is one of those ideas that has been cliché in Christian culture, such that its true meaning and/or significance is actually lost among those who are familiar with it.

The author of a popular-level book based on her exciting contribution to the scholarly theological literature, Bearing God’s Name, relayed the following in an interview:

My dissertation was on the command not to take the Lord’s name in vain, which is how most of us read it in English. I was exploring the possibility of not reading it as speech-related. In the history of interpretation, most scholars have assumed that this command has something to do with speech. It’s either prohibiting false oaths or mispronunciation of the name, or the use of God’s name in magic or in cursing. There’s all sorts of speech-related possibilities. I read the command as an injunction not to bear Yahweh’s name in vain—so not to misrepresent him among the nations. So it’s as though Yahweh put his name on his people to claim them as his own, and then he says to them, “You shall not claim to belong to me and go out and live like the pagans.”…The closest passage in the book of Exodus to this command that uses ns with shem (the word “name”) is in the high priestly garments. When the high priestly garments are described, he is actually bearing the names of the 12 tribes on the jewels on his breast piece and on the jewels on his shoulder pieces. And it says, “You shall wear these, and so you shall bear the names of the sons of Israel for a memorial before me in the tabernacle.” So there’s a concrete example there of what it would look like to bear a name. They each have a share in his ministry by having their names all on his person. He represents them before Yahweh, and so we are supposed to represent Yahweh before the nations. And then, of course, the high priest also has the medallion on his forehead that says “wholly belonging to Yahweh” on it.

Remembering that the New Testament has a profoundly Jewish context, it is no surprise to see this theme carry over from the Old Testament, in spite of the decreased usage density.1

There are numerous points of significance to the idea of bearing God’s name, and as we saw above, they go well beyond the concept of ill-speaking.

The Name of the Lord Confers Authority

Much of the time, the phrase “the name of the Lord” in the New Testament is used to denote divine authority in the Person of Christ. Frankly, it was used to identify Jesus as God.

Mark 11:9-11 describes a scene from the so-called Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem:

And they that went before, and they that followed, cried, saying, Hosanna; Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord: Blessed be the kingdom of our father David, that cometh in the name of the Lord: Hosanna in the highest. And Jesus entered into Jerusalem, and into the temple: and when he had looked round about upon all things, and now the eventide was come, he went out unto Bethany with the twelve.

Although this was not an instance of Jesus claiming divine authority, it reveals the contextual understanding that first-century Jews had of their Messiah. Of course, they ultimately stood in rejection of Jesus as this figure; they did not expect the Cross (1 Corinthians 2:8).

The point is this: The confirmation that Messiah had come was bound up in the notion that he would bear the name of God. He would not merely come speaking the name, but in the name—in other words, as his representative.

The Name of the Lord Confers Power

To bear God’s name is also a matter of having power. This is, again, because true power is bound up in Yahweh—the God of the Hebrews.

He has all power and all authority in heaven and earth. There is no power more powerful than him. He is all-powerful.

Consider Acts 19:13-17:

Then certain of the vagabond Jews, exorcists, took upon them to call over them which had evil spirits the name of the Lord Jesus, saying, We adjure you by Jesus whom Paul preacheth. And there were seven sons of one Sceva, a Jew, and chief of the priests, which did so. And the evil spirit answered and said, Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are ye? And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, and overcame them, and prevailed against them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. And this was known to all the Jews and Greeks also dwelling at Ephesus; and fear fell on them all, and the name of the Lord Jesus was magnified.

The power by which these demons were overcome was that which can only be manifested in the name of the Lord.

In James 5, we see an example of this “name theology” as applied to prayer; specifically, prayer for the sick.

Is any among you afflicted? let him pray. Is any merry? let him sing psalms. Is any sick among you? let him call for the elders of the church; and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord: And the prayer of faith shall save the sick, and the Lord shall raise him up; and if he have committed sins, they shall be forgiven him. (James 5:13-15)

There is nothing “special” here about someone in the church who has the title “elder,” nor is there any special property of the oil with which they were commanded to use.

Rather, the power to heal came through an appeal to the name of the Lord. Again, not the word(s) associated with God’s name, but the meaning, power, and authority behind it.

The Name of the Lord Confers Salvation

In perhaps one of the most easily recognized instances of this passage, Romans 10:13 declares:

For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.

In this passage, we see another interesting aspect of “the name.” In modern vernacular, this particular usage of the motif gives us the most trouble. When we speak and/or think like this, it comes naturally to resort back to the idea of speech or language.

But that’s not what’s going on here.

It’s not as though someone who merely speaks the name of Jesus will invite salvation into her life. This is to rip “the name” out of its Scriptural context and give it a meaning it was never intended to have.

Rather, in accordance with what we learned above, it is to take on the name of Christ. The marriage analogy is relevant, and given how often it is used in Scripture, some exciting new ideas may be forming in your mind right now.

Calling upon the name of the Lord, then, means trusting in what he revealed to be true. It means true, genuine repentance from your wicked ways and the pursuit of a godly life.2 It means becoming a bearer of God’s name, representing him before the world, and following him in unwavering believing loyalty.

Of course, beyond our salvation, our loyalty to God’s name also contributes to our sanctification:

Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God. (1 Corinthians 6:9-11)

We are judicially declared “just” in the sight of God because Christ’s blood has been applied to our account; we are justified “in the name of the Lord Jesus” because we are “in Christ,” who himself bears the name of Yahweh.

For deeper study into the history, significance, and practical application of so-called “name theology,” see Carmen Imes’ book, Bearing God’s Name.


  1. This term appears only 21 times in the New Testament, compared to 88 in the Old.
  2. I am not, however, endorsing what is commonly called “Lordship Salvation.”

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