1. OUR FAILURE TO DISTINGUISH BETWEEN THE SOUL AND THE SPIRIT
We cannot lightly by-pass any truths presented in Scripture. We need to distinguish the things that differ. Even though such things may seem to have no immediate bearing on our Christian life. Satan is apt to make his best attacks on those areas of our faith we have neglected.
One of these areas of neglect has been our failure to understand the nature of man-that is, to distinguish between the soul and the spirit. Most of us have spoken of the soul of man as meaning the spirit of man, or, on the other hand, of the spirit as meaning the soul. Some verses in Scripture seem to leave us with the impression that soul and spirit are the same. This is natural, however, because man's nature is so synchronized that one department of his personality cannot be absolutely unrelated to any other department of it.
2. WHAT IS THE BASIC DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE SOUL AND SPIRIT?
THREE MAIN DIVISIONS
The question we wish to consider is this: "What is the basic difference between the soul and spirit?" Wherein does the Scripture indicate that there is a difference? Three references will help us make this distinction: I Thessalonians 5:23, Luke 1:46, Hebrews 4:12.
In the first reference (I Thess. 5:23) Paul prays for the sanctification of the Thessalonians:
The God of peace himself sanctify you wholly; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved entire, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Scripture shows that there are three main divisions in the makeup of man-the spirit, the soul, and the body. Paul points out that the total nature of man has been defiled by his rebellion and transgressions; therefore all three areas need the sanctifying work of the Spirit of God. The main thing we want to notice just here is that the spirit and the soul in man are treated as two different realms.
In the second passage (Luke 1:46), after the announcement that Mary will be the mother of the Messiah, she praises God. Mary said:
My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
This again makes a clear distinction between the two parts of Mary's personality-her soul and her spirit. The third part of her being was her body, which was the instrument through which God brought forth His own Son into the human family by physical birth. Even in this verse we see that man has three parts to his being.
A third passage (Heb. 4:12) will make this distinction even clearer. Here the writer of the book of Hebrews declares:
For the word of God is living, and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and quick to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart.
How plain this is! The Word of God distinguishes between soul and spirit. How much more, then, should we make a distinction! But alas, how rarely have we stopped to think concerning this important matter!
These three Scriptures show the difference or the division between the soul and the spirit as well as the body. But Scripture tells us more. It reveals what the individual functions of each part are.
2. THE BODY OF MAN (world-conscious)
The body in Scripture is called a "tabernacle." The Holy Spirit calls it "the earthly house of our tabernacle." Another translation for tabernacle is "the bodily frame" or "the tent" in which the human personality dwells. Concerning his coming death, the apostle peter testified, saying, "The putting off of my tabernacle cometh swiftly, even as our Lord Jesus Christ signified unto me" (II Pet. 1:14).
The body is purely the creation of the earth. The body is "the dust" from which the great Creator made it possible for man to exist in a world made up of the elements of earth. The members of our bodies are called "instruments," through which we can express our souls and our spirits.
The body is the instrument in man that expresses his soul in a visible way. If we lose a member of our body, we lose a means of expressing ourselves.
Besides this, it is by means of the bodily senses and capacities that we are able to communicate both to and from ourselves. By our bodies we are world-conscious. God's will is for the body to be separated from all sin, sanctified, and motivated by the indwelling of God's Spirit. "The body … is for the Lord, and the Lord for the body" (I Cor. 6:13). Our understanding of the body is very easy to comprehend because we are so surrounded by the visible world that we have no question about the reality of our bodies.
3. THE SOUL OF MAN (self-conscious)
What is the soul, and how is the soul distinguished from the body? If the body is world-conscious, then the soul is mainly self-conscious. First, the soul is the capacity that we had to feel, even as Jesus said, "My soul is exceedingly sorrowful." Secondly, the soul is our capacity to think, to recollect, even as we read in Psalm 103: "Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits." Thirdly, the soul is our ability to make choices, even as we read in Luke 12:19 where the foolish rich man said, "Soul, thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, be merry." By the self-conscious power of his soul, this man was able to enjoy, to devise, and to determine the thing that he had selfishly chosen.
We understand, then, that the soul is the conscious life of man-his feelings, his mind, and his will. It is these that make him responsible to God.
In a limited sense, every living creature has a soul, but a human soul is very different from that which an animal possesses. An animal does live by its hungers and desires, an animal does have a limited power of thought, and an animal does make choices in a restricted way. Yet the Bible is very careful to distinguish between these two creatures of God - the animal and man. When Paul says, "Tribulation and anguish, upon every soul of man that worketh evil …" (Rom. 2:9), he declares that the soul of man is held responsible for evil acts. This is never indicated as the responsibility of an animal. Animals are led by their own instincts and are without any higher responsibility.
Concerning the soul of man, we say again that the soul is the God-given capacity to feel, to think, and to choose according to the disposition that is his by the Spirit of God. The soul is that capacity by which a man lives as a responsible being toward God and toward his fellow men. The soul needs to be purified and cleansed on the basis of the precious blood of Jesus. It needs to be controlled by the Spirit of God.
One more thing that should be said is that the soul mediates-stands between-the spirit and the body of man. This is presented plainly in the creation story, for Scripture says concerning man's creation: "The Lord God formed man [body] out of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life [spirit]; and man became a living soul" (Gen. 2:7). Man is God's special creation, made in God's image and likeness. When a man dies, his soul is said to die, for "the wages of sin is death" and "the soul that sinneth, it shall die." The phrase "a living soul" always describes a body animated by life; it never describes a corpse. Thus we read concerning the flood that in the ark, "eight souls were saved by water." This gives evidence of a contrast between the eight souls inside the ark and the death of the many men outside the ark. When the human spirit is in the human body, man is said then to be a living soul. When the spirit finally departs, man ceases to be a soul and will not be a soul again until his spirit is reunited with his body. This fact will be plain from other Scriptures we will now consider concerning the human spirit.
4. THE SPIRIT OF MAN (God-conscious)
Scripture divides between soul and spirit.
But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth: for the Father seeketh such to worship him. God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth (John 4:23,24).
Spirit is that capacity which distinguishes man as an entirely separate creation from all other created things, including the highest type of animals. Animals can be world-conscious and in a restricted way, self-conscious; but only man has the capacity to be God-conscious. The God-conscious part of man is his spirit. The spirit of man is the God-given capacity to worship, reverence, serve, and know the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Just as flesh is able to have correspondence and fellowship with flesh, so the human spirit is able to have communion and fellowship with God who is a Spirit.
The word spirit from the Hebrew Scriptures is ruach. The Greek word spirit in the New Testament Scriptures is pneuma, which means the breath God breathes into the personality of man. But this "breath" is more than just "an impersonal rush of air" that invades the lungs of men. (Even the word for the Spirit of God is from this same Greek word, "pneuma," "God is a Spirit," John 4:24; and we Christians do not think of God as an impersonal force.) In Scripture there are very definite evidences that within the tabernacle of our bodies (Paul calls it this bodily "temple") there dwells the human spirit. No animal possesses this spirit.
5. SPIRIT IN THE FALLEN MAN
Within man, then, there dwells the spirit, which, because of sin, has fallen under the subjection of man's corrupted body and soul. But there are indications in Scripture of the presence of a spirit in man. Romans 8:15 tells us that in fallen man there is "the spirit of bondage again to fear." In Psalm 32:2 David calls the man who is in fellowship with god a man "in whose spirit there is no guile." In others words, here are evidences of a former relationship with God: first, a fearfulness in man, not merely physical fear but fear of the unknown and unseen; secondly, a tendency to hid from moral and spiritual light, a tendency to hid from a holy God, who has put in man a sense of moral responsibility. This sense, which is deeper than the mind, is that which distinguishes man from the beast. This spiritual element makes the soul of a man and the soul of a beast two entirely different entities.
We see the truth of this in the fall of man. As soon as Adam disobeyed God and obeyed the solicitations of the serpent, immediately he was afraid and sought to hide himself from the presence of God. These emotions of fear and of guile were produced out of his spirit, which had become orphaned and estranged from God. Instead of being confident and loving the light of God, man's spirit became bound by fear and guile. These are sins of the fallen spirit.
6. SPIRIT IS ABLE TO EXPRESS ITSELF
Not only does Scripture show that the spirit is a realm in man deeper than the mind, but also that his spirit is said to be able to express itself apart from the human mind. This is illustrated by one of the gifts of the Holy Spirit that was demonstrated on the day of Pentecost, called the gift of tongues. There the Holy Spirit endued men's spirits with the ability to speak a language they had never learned. Paul, instructing the use of this gift which God had invested in their spirits, said:
If I pray in a tongue, my spirit prayeth, but my understanding [or mind] is unfruitful. What is it then? I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also; I will sing with the spirit, and I will sing with the understanding also. Else if thou bless with the spirit, how shall he that filleth the place of the unlearned say the Amen at thy giving of thanks, seeing he knoweth not what thou sayest? For thou verily givest thanks well, but the other is not edified (I Cor. 14:14-17).
Though Paul does not agree at all with a disorderly use of this gift, he does indicate the power of the human spirit to express a language to God apart from the faculty of the mind. Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the human spirit can know things and say things that the mind knows nothing about.
In Romans 8 we see that by the Holy Spirit God can convey to us the wonderful knowledge that we are God's children through our faith in Jesus Christ. "The Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God" (Rom. 8:16). The Holy Spirit can witness with the human spirit concerning our relationship to God. This is not merely feeling a "breeze" on our spirit, but transference of divine knowledge from the Holy Spirit to the regenerated human spirit.
7. MARVELOUS FACULTIES WITHIN MAN
All the marvelous faculties God has put within man, no one can know. We can only confess with the Psalmist that we are "fearfully and wonderfully made." The realm of the spirit is full of great wonder. For instance, in II Corinthians 12:1-5 we see that Paul witnessed to the greatness of a revelation that he had from God. This is a strange portion of Scripture. Paul knew a man who had an experience where he was caught up into the third heaven. (Verily likely he is speaking of himself in the third person.) Something, however, was not clear-whether this experience was outside his body or whether he was still within his body. Paul says that God alone knew what happened:
I knew a man in Christ fourteen years ago (whether in the body, I know not; whether out of the body, I know not; God knoweth), such a one caught up even to the third heaven. And I know such a man (whether in the body, or apart from the body, I know not; God knoweth), how that he was caught up into Paradise, and heard unspeakable words, which it is not lawful for man to utter. On behalf of such a one will I glory, but on my own behalf I will not glory, save in my weaknesses (II Cor. 12:1-5).
8. POSSIBILITY FOR THE INNER SPIRIT LEAVING THE BODY
These verses are very important because Paul has set forth here the possibility of our inner spirit leaving the body, being apart from the body, and enjoying or beholding the unseen realm. Some will very dogmatically say that the spirit or the inner man is impersonal and inseparable from the body. Paul did not say such a thing. Some of our contemporaries in Bible interpretations claim there is no life apart from the body and speak with dogmatism that the apostle Paul himself did not claim to have Paul, in this passage, implied the possibility of man's spirit leaving his mortal body.
In another of his letters Paul thrilled to anticipate that great venture of death when he would be with the Lord. He said, "For me to live is Christ and to die is gain," and "I am in a strait betwixt the two, having the desire to depart and be with Christ: for it is very far better" (Phil. 1:23). Also, in II Corinthians 5 he said these encouraging words:
Being therefore always of good courage and knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord (for we walk by faith, not by sight): we are of good courage I say, and are willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be at home with the Lord. Wherefore also we make it our aim, whether at home, or absent to be well-pleasing unto him (II Cor. 5:6-9).
Man does not die like a beast. "There is a spirit in man" (Job. 32:8).
9. THE FALSEHOOD OF THE DOCTRINE OF SOUL SLEEP
Today many with self-appointed authority are peddling the doctrine of soul-sleep. These point triumphantly to those Scriptures, which indicate that the soul dies, but they have neglected the great realm of the human spirit, which is distinct from the soul. The Christian is not confined to the science of psychology. He knows there is more to man than flesh and blood, together with a somewhat higher type of intelligence. For Jesus said, "that which is born of the flesh is flesh, but that which is born of the spirit is spirit."
Jesus taught, "Ye must be born again"; that is, that is, just as we received life on a fleshly level, so there is within man that which can receive (on the conditions of repentance and faith in Christ) a spiritual regeneration, a spiritual birth. This spiritual life qualifies a man for the kingdom of heaven, which is not only future but is to be experienced now. "For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 14:17).
10. THE SPIRIT OF GOD COMES INTO OUR SPIRITS
Much more could be said on this great subject of the dividing asunder of soul and spirit. But perhaps we have said enough to open eyes that have failed to see the wonderful capacity we have in our spirits to choose to live by the Spirit of God or by the spirit of this world. There is the Spirit of Christ who moves upon men, turning their wills away from sin to embrace the saving grace of Christ. Then there is also the evil spirit, who seeks man's defilement and perdition. Between these two powers stands the spirit of man. Man is called upon to make the choice of turning away from all sin and all the works of the devil to receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour and to live for Him alone. For those who thus receive Christ, the Spirit of Christ comes into their spirits, their bodies become temples of the living God, and they are the eternal heirs of glory. A deep, abiding relationship is affected through Christ's redemption; the Spirit of God is joined to the spirit of man. No greater statement can be said of man than this: "He that is joined unto the Lord is one spirit."