Calling on His Name
While today we tend to think of baptism as a uniquely Christian practice, historically speaking it was a practice that originated from the wider Jewish world. One of the defining features of Christian baptism was that it occurred in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ. Now Jesus’ name obviously played a significant role in the baptismal process. It always appeared in baptismal formulae in the New Testament (Matthew 28:18-20, Acts 2:38, Ephesians 4:5.) Now by his name I do not simply mean what he is called. In the world of Scripture, a person’s name represented their status, reputation and personage. So as we shall soon see, the significance of the Lord’s name was not just a procedural matter.
The entire baptismal event occurred in Christ’s name, that is under his authority and direction. Therefore the first step in the baptismal process was the one being immersed publicly recognising the authority of the Lord Jesus. Since it was done in his name, it was Jesus who ultimately baptised the initiate but through a delegate whom he had deputised to perform the ritual. Being baptised “in his name” in particular, indicated ownership by him. For example, in 1 Corinthians 1:10-17 Paul argued that because they were baptised in Christ’s name and not his or any others, it meant that they belonged to Christ. On this, the late great New Testament scholar James D.G. Dunn wrote,
[B]aptism into the name clearly means ‘to baptize into allegiance to the person named’ and indicates that baptism in the name of Christ is the formal act wherein and whereby the baptisand gives himself to Christ… We need not press the actual phrase: what is important is the idea it conveys—of a change of ownership. Baptism is such a transaction, where the baptisand formally gives himself into the hands of a new Master… Baptism we have seen to be the means of commitment to Christ’s lordship so as to belong to him.
Now I would like to further nuance Dunn’s point about baptism being how a person becomes Christ’s possession. It is not that it is baptism that “makes” Jesus a person’s Lord. God has already made Jesus Lord by raising him from the dead and exalting him to his right hand. Therefore, whether a person acknowledges his authority or not, Jesus is their Lord regardless. As the Scripture says, to him every knee will bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord. The reason why the gospel is preached is to make the entire world aware of the new status quo. Once a person hears and believes the message that God has exalted his Son, then they submit themselves to the Son in recognition of his position. Baptism is therefore how a person voluntarily submits to Christ’s divine authority as Lord, a status that had already been given to him by God when he seated him at his right hand, 40 days after raising him from the dead.
The perspective that baptism in Christ’s name is how a person submits to Christ as Lord also resonates with my characterisation of the ritual in the New Testament as an enacted oath of allegiance to Christ the Lord. Dunn also alluded to the idea of baptism as an act of allegiance in the quote from earlier. When a person swears an oath to a ruler, they do so in recognition of the authority the ruler already has and willingly submit themselves to his authority. Similarly through baptism, the believer pledged fidelity and loyal service to Jesus having recognised that he has been duly appointed their Lord.
Being baptised in the name of the Lord was not only how a person came to voluntarily belong to the Lord. It was the divinely ordained means for calling on his name. Now calling on the name of the Lord did not mean simply praying to God privately, especially in the manner we do today. Calling on any deity for that matter, was actually cultic language for the ritual invocation of a deity (Genesis 13:2-4, 26:25, 1 Kings 18:24, Psalm 99:5-7.) As I earlier explained regarding names, the deity’s name was not just what they were called but embodied who they were. Therefore, calling on their name, which happened within a cultic setting such as a sacrifice, was how their personal presence and power was invoked. We see a similar thing happening in Scripture with Yahweh the God of Israel, especially in times of trouble (Psalm 116.) As the Scripture says, “and those who call on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Joel 2:32.) Peter quotes this line in his Pentecost address (Acts 2:31.) Later on in Acts 22:16, Paul shows us how a person calls on the name of the Lord. The apostle says,
…Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name. (ESV)
As I have already explained, this quote reaffirms that the name was an essential feature of the ceremony. It is so significant that we can see that for Paul, baptism was effectively how a person called on the name Lord. Baptism is a ritual act therefore it makes sense that it was within that setting that the ritual act of calling on the Lord occurred.
In the passage, the apostle alludes to the saving power of baptism since a person’s sins are washed away by it. Since one of the reasons for calling on the Lord’s name is for salvation, baptism is the right setting for calling on the Lord to save a person from their sins by being washed in his name. Even setting aside calling on his name as ritual language, it was at baptism that the believer first publicly acknowledged the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, evoking his personal presence to be with them in the act and forever after (Matthew 28:19-20.)
As we have just seen, baptism was literally how a person called on the name of the Lord. Now by “how” I mean it is the divinely appointed means to receive salvation (1 Peter 3:21.) In the New Testament how a person was saved was expressly through baptism in Christ’s name. The name is what gives the act saving power since it only Christ who has the power to save. Therefore being baptised in any other name will not save a person from their sins (Acts 4:12.) Through baptism a person now voluntarily belongs to Christ and is saved by being incorporated into him (Galatians 3:27.)
Now it is true that it can be said that the purpose of all Christian gatherings is to call on his name. As Jesus himself said, “wherever two or three of you are gathered in my name, there am I among them” (Matthew 18:20.) What sets baptism apart is that it is how his name called on first. It is the believer’s first appeal to their Lord for him to come and save. It therefore creates the relationship believer and saviour. To be precise, baptism initiates the believer into the community of people who call on the name Lord thereby granting them special access to his saving power (1 Corinthians 1:2.)
 James D.G. Dunn, Baptism in the Holy Spirit, pp. 117-118, The Westminster Press, 1970.