Acts 2:21 says, “And it shall be that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” In case anyone is unaware, “The Sinner’s Prayer” is when someone prays with conviction for Jesus to come into his heart in order to receive salvation. Supporters of “The Sinner’s Prayer” have often used Acts 2:21 as a proof text for their belief. Let’s take a closer look to see if “calling on the name of the Lord” has any connection to “The Sinner’s Prayer.”
The Context. As Acts 2 gets started, an incredible scene unfolds. There is a noise like a violent rushing wind (2), flames of fire appear on the apostles’ heads (3), the apostles are filled with the Holy Spirit and begin speaking in different languages (4). Now that they have everyone’s attention (7, 12), the Lord is ready to speak through Peter (14ff). Peter begins his sermon by showing that God said He would pour His Spirit on people, miraculous things would happen, and that those who “called on God’s name would be saved” (16-21). There is no indication that anyone had yet called on God’s name and Peter doesn’t say anything else about how people can receive salvation until later on in this chapter. Peter continues to connect Old Testament prophecies with Jesus so that everyone would see an undeniable fact, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ – this Jesus whom you crucified” (36). Realizing the horrible acts they have just committed against God, the crowd responds appropriately, “Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’” (37).
Now we’ve reached a key point. Peter hasn’t said anything at all about calling on the name of the Lord or anything about salvation since verse 21. If saying “The Sinner’s Prayer” was what God wanted them to do, then this would have been the absolute perfect place for Peter to command it. Everything is hanging in the balance here as these people who are pierced with guilt are wondering if there is any possible way they can be forgiven for their detestable actions. So what was Peter’s answer? “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (38).
Now, wait just a minute here! So Peter didn’t say anything about “The Sinner’s Prayer?” Correct. But wait, Peter didn’t just tell them to believe in order to be saved? Correct (c.f. Mark 16:16). Then did the people ever “call on the name of the Lord?” Yes, and the text says they did, but we might have missed it. Let’s define this phrase.
The Definition. The phrase “call on the name of the Lord,” is not as hard of a concept as it might seem. In fact, we’ve probably all lived through a situation that perfectly defines this phrase. As kids, our parents probably told us, “Go clean your room,” to which we did everything in our power besides clean our room. We would finally reach a point to where our parents would say something like, “I don’t want to see or hear from you again until you’ve obeyed me.”
This is exactly what it means to “call on the name of the Lord.” God is saying, I don’t want to hear from you until you have obeyed my commands. The question is, what commands? Well, according to verse 38, the command was to “repent and be baptized.” Peter is telling the people in verse 38 how they can “call on the name of the Lord.” The only way is through baptism. Let’s look at some specific examples of this.
The Examples. Take a look at Acts 22:16, Ananias said to Saul (who later is called Paul), “Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.” According to a parallel account in Acts 9, Paul had already been praying to God before he was baptized (9:11, 18). In fact, he was probably praying for three straight days (9:9). So if calling on the name of the Lord is talking about “The Sinner’s Prayer,” then why didn’t Paul receive salvation while he was already praying? To put it simply, because “calling on the name of the Lord” has nothing to do with “The Sinner’s Prayer.” In support of the definition we’ve already covered, Ananias tells Paul to “call on the name of the Lord” by doing what? By being baptized. Baptism is connected to “washing away sins” and “calling on God’s name.” More specifically, baptism is how we wash sins away as well as how we call on God name. Here’s another example.
1 Peter 3:21 says, “Corresponding to that, baptism now saves you – not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience – through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.” Once again, if we want to “call on the name of the Lord,” or in this case, if we want to “appeal to God for a good conscience,” then the way to do it is through obeying God’s command to be baptized. And just like in Acts 22:16, here baptism is also connected with salvation and washing sins away.
The Conclusion. Contrary to popular belief, there is not one single, solitary place in Scripture where we see someone saying “The Sinner’s Prayer.” In fact, there isn’t any sound biblical support of this concept at all. What is communicated throughout Scripture is that God wants us to obey His commands (Matthew 7:21-27). If we want to “call on the name of the Lord,” we don’t do this by saying “The Sinner’s prayer.” We “call on the name of the Lord” by obeying His command to be baptized (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; Romans 6:3-4; Galatians 3:27; 1 Peter 3:21, etc)
May we have the humility to accept this truth, the boldness to obey it, and the right attitude to teach this to others in love (Ephesians 4:15).