The Key to the Trinity: “The Name of the Lord”

We didn’t dare play games with God’s name in the home in which I grew up. To speak of Him the way our friends at school did was unthinkable; even to sing about Him in a silly voice – or replace His name with a “safe alternative” – was ill-advised.

I’m grateful for that upbringing. It helps me better understand the religious world in which Paul grew up. In Paul’s Bible, sons were killed and fathers judged for failure to uphold God’s name (Lev 24:10-16; 1Sa 3:13).

And what a name it was! YHWH (often pronounced today as Yahweh) was God’s unique and personal Name that He commanded Israel never to take in vain (Exo 20:7). Such was the people’s fear of accidentally misusing it that they took precautions never to say it at all. In their scrolls, scribes set up literary flashing lights – dots, unusual letter-spacings, or even special fonts – that warned the reader: Be careful! You are approaching the Divine Name. Slow down and take care, lest you inadvertently let it slip.[1]

They also sanctioned a safe alternative. Instead of Yahweh, Israelites could say “Lord” (adonai in Hebrew; kyrios in Greek). Many of our English Bibles follow this practice today. In most of the 6,800 or so instances where the OT has the divine name, we see the word LORD in small capitals. Similarly, the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT reflects the Jewish practice of substituting the word Lord (kyrios) for the divine name.[2]

Consider a famous text from the prophet Joel: “And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved” (2:32a).[3] The English has LORD; the Greek translation has kyrios. Both signify the otherwise unmentionable Name of Yahweh.

Thus, many of us can relate in a small way to Paul’s upbringing, even if he was taught to reverence the Name more strictly. Don’t speak the Name, misuse the Name, or associate the Name with anyone else but the one true God of Israel.

How extraordinary, then, that Paul began to apply the Name to a man called Jesus! Paul quotes our text from Joel in his letter to the Romans: “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’” (Rom 10:13). But he does so in a surprising way. When Greek-speaking Jews read Paul’s quote from Joel this time, they weren’t just to read kyrios and think Yahweh; they were also to read kyrios and think Jesus. No, Paul is not playing games with the Name. Rather, he has learned something earth-shatteringly important about the one true God.

An Airtight Case

This text can help you if you wrestle with whether the triunity doctrine of God is biblical. Three lines of evidence converge on one airtight conclusion: Paul is applying an OT Yahweh text to Jesus Christ.

First, the evidence from thought-flow. Perhaps Paul quotes this text to refer to God the Father? Not according to the flow of thought. Paul is contrasting two kinds of righteousness: an exclusive kind, based on works, and an accessible kind, based on faith, and thus available to all (10:1-8). This latter kind is within reach because, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord [kyrios] and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (v9). Notice that, here, kyrios is Jesus, and belief in His lordship and resurrection grants one salvation.

From here on the flow of thought is simple to trace. Paul writes a series of for statements, each explaining or grounding a previous statement, all of them rushing us onwards to the climactic Joel quotation in verse 13.[4] And here’s the thing: the argument only works if the Lord that we start with in verse 9 (Jesus) is still the same Lord in view once we get to the end (v13).

I can only summarize the thought-flow. First, Paul affirms salvation by faith (v10). The second for statement gives scriptural support for this, as well as introducing the thought of everyone: “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame” (v11). Paul is quoting Isaiah 28:16. He quoted it just a few verses earlier (9:33) where the “him” referred to Jesus. There can be no question that it also refers to Christ in this instance too.

Why is it that everyone who believes in Christ will not be put to shame? The third and fourth for statements explain: “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (v12). If you think about it, for Paul’s argument to work, the “him” of verse 11 must be the “Lord” of verse 12. “Paul cannot be referring to this Lord as ‘the same’ Lord if he is a different Lord than the one he just mentioned!”[5] The universal availability of salvation through faith in Christ is grounded in the universal scope of His lordship.

Finally, Paul’s argument sweeps on to its climax in verse 13. The fact that all who call on the Lord receive His riches (v12) finds scriptural support in the quotation of Joel: “For ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.’” The Lord of verse 9 must be the same Lord of verses 12 and 13. Paul identifies Jesus as kyrios/Lord/YHWH.

Second, the evidence from cross-references. “Calling on the name” is special language in the Bible denoting worship.[6] According to the NT, the practice of Christians calling on the name of the Lord Jesus was so widespread and distinct that it became a way of identifying them. Ananias, for example, calls Jesus “Lord,” and then identifies his fellow believers as those “who call on your name” (Act 9:14; cf. vv15-16; 9:21; 22:16). Paul similarly refers to Christians in every place as those who “call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1Co 1:2). Gordon Fee shows that Paul is using common OT language from Genesis and Joel 2:32, language that was originally used of Yahweh.[7] This pattern of NT usage confirms that the first readers of Romans 10:13 would have known exactly who Paul meant by “Lord” – the Lord Jesus Christ.

Third, the evidence from context. Notice what Paul says after quoting Joel 2:32. “That Lord of verse 13,” he asks, “How will they call on him in whom they haven’t believed, or believe in him whom they haven’t heard?” (my paraphrase of 10:14). “Since Paul’s concern in these chapters is for Israel, it is crystal clear that these questions could not possibly be speaking of the God of Israel.”[8] It only makes sense to speak of Israel’s need to hear if the one they need to hear about is other than God the Father.

This final line of evidence seals the case: Paul “has applied sacred texts to his Lord Jesus that referred originally to the one true God whose name is ineffable, unspeakable, and protected by the commandments.”[9] In doing so, he has made “an unreserved identification of Jesus with YHWH, the unique Lord and only God of Israel.”[10]

The Triunity of God

What does this mean for our doctrine of God? So far we have seen that Romans 10:9-13 identifies the Lord Jesus as Yahweh. Now we need to see a second thing: that it does not identify Jesus as Yahweh without remainder. That is, this Scripture does not speak of Christ in such a way that He and He alone is Yahweh. Rather, even as it insists that He is God, it also at the same time distinguishes Him from God, for in verse 9 it says that “God raised him from the dead.” Once again Scripture drives us to believe in the triunity of God, for in this passage it names the Father as God, and the Lord Jesus as God, while never compromising the truth that there is only one God. It is not that there are three Gods or three Yahwehs. Rather, there are three Persons in one God, in one Yahweh. Paul has learned an astonishing thing about God: that he can reverence the Divine Name, even while applying it to the man Jesus.

[1] David B. Capes, The Divine Christ: Paul, The Lord Jesus, and The Scriptures of Israel, Acadia Studies in Bible and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2018), 10-19.

[2] This is a simplification. See Gordon D. Fee, Pauline Christology: An Exegetical-Theological Study (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2007), 20-23.

[3] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV. Any emphases in Scripture quotations are mine.

[4] Christopher Kavin Rowe, “Romans 10:13: What Is the Name of the Lord?” Horizons in Biblical Theology 22, no. 2 (2000): 140-41.

[5] Robert M. Bowman and J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place: The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2007), 162. Original emphasis.

[6] Joel D. Estes, “Calling on the Name of the Lord: The Meaning and Significance of Ἐπικαλέω in Romans 10:13,” Themelios 41, no. 1 (April 2016): 20-36.

[7] Fee, Pauline Christology, 127-29.

[8] Rowe, “Romans 10:13: What Is the Name of the Lord?” 157.

[9] Capes, The Divine Christ, 73.

[10] Rowe, 160.