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The Difference between Spirit and Soul

Are your mind, will, and emotions actually part of your soul? Or are they part of your spirit? You might be surprised at the answer I gave to a question from Jim who wrote:

I find your take on body, soul and spirit interesting and I have some tough questions for you (well I think they’re tough). What happens when someone has a near-death experience? He leaves his body, but it appears he still retains his soulish functions (i.e. mind, will emotions). Besides, what leaves the body? The spirit? The soul? An integration of both perhaps? I would like to hear your opinion on this question.

Great questions! They are indeed tough questions, but they’re also ones that I’ve considered and researched before. You’ll have to forgive the length of my reply, but I can’t think of a more concise way to adequately show the scriptural foundation. I hope this sheds some light on what you’re wondering.

First of all, the three parts of body, soul, and spirit are only listed in one place by name: 1 Thessalonians 5:23. We also see the principle of these three parts in Genesis 2:7, where it says that God formed man from the dust of the ground (body), breathed into him the breath of life (Hebrew here is “spirit”), and man became a living being (which could be translated as “soul,” as it is in the American Standard Version). Notice that the concept of a soul comes into play when the body and spirit came together. These appear to be the only two places where all three parts are presented together.

However, what we do see over and over again in the Scripture is the contrast between body and spirit. This is because these are the primary parts of man. I liken it to the logo for MasterCard. The circle on the left is the body, the circle on the right is the spirit, and the interlocking portion in the middle–where the two main parts converge—is the soul. So while we do consist of three parts, the third part only exists because the first two have come together. When the two parts separate (as at death), the third part disappears. The soul only exists in the context of body and spirit being fused together.

So when someone has a near-death experience, it is his spirit which leaves his body. Paul said that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord (2 Corinthains 5:8). This is confirmed in Psalm 146:4 and Ecclesiastes 12:7. Likewise, when Jesus died, the Bible says He gave up His spirit (Matthew 27:50). And when Jesus raised a dead girl back to life, it says that her spirit returned (Luke 8:55).

Here’s where things get a little interesting. We say that the soul is the mind, will, and emotions, which is mostly true (as I’ll back-up in a moment). But a deeper study shows that the true source for the mind, will, and emotions can be found in the spirit. A quick run through a concordance gives us a little insight into how the spirit functions:

  1. A spirit can be stubborn (Deuteronomy 2:30)

  2. A spirit can be bitter (1 Samuel 30:6)

  3. A spirit can be in anguish (Job 7:11)

  4. A spirit can be deceitful (Psalm 32:2)

  5. A spirit can be crushed/brokenhearted (Psalm 34:18)

  6. A spirit can be willing to serve God (Psalm 51:12, Matthew 26:41)

  7. A spirit can be humble (Psalm 51:17, Isaiah 66:2)

  8. A spirit can be embittered (Psalm 73:21)

  9. A spirit can grow faint (Psalm 77:3, 142:3, 143:4)

  10. A spirit can ask questions (Psalm 77:6)

  11. A spirit can be faithful (Psalm 78:8)

  12. A spirit can be proud (Proverbs 16:18)

  13. A spirit longs for God’s presence (Isaiah 26:9)

  14. A spirit can be wayward (Isaiah 29:24)

  15. A spirit can be distressed (Isaiah 54:6)

  16. A spirit can be misguided and misleading (Ezekiel 13:3)

  17. A spirit can be troubled (Daniel 7:15)

  18. A spirit can rejoice in God (Luke 1:47)

  19. A spirit can serve God (Romans 1:9)

  20. A man’s spirit knows his thoughts (1 Corinthians 2:11)

  21. A spirit can be gentle (1 Corinthians 4:21)

  22. A spirit can pray and sing (1 Corinthians 14:14-15)

Remember also that angels and demons are spirits, and they too exercise free will and free thought (otherwise Satan couldn’t have rebelled against God). In short, the human spirit is the true source of one’s mind, will, and emotions.

At the same time, though, when spirit and body come together, there is a sort of “infusion” that takes place. Notice in the above list how many of the spirit’s traits are sinful: stubbornness, bitterness, deceit, pride, etc. Are we to believe that these traits came from God? No way! These are traits of the fallen nature of mankind. So how did they wind up in the God-breathed spirit? By the infusion of body and spirit. Our pure spirit, which came from God, gets contaminated when breathed into the corrupt flesh, which descended from Adam.

While God only creates what is good, righteous, and pure, the sinful nature of mankind causes us to be born into this world as fallen beings. Psalm 51:5 says that we are sinful from the moment of conception—which happens to be when the pure spirit from God is breathed into the corrupt flesh from Adam. Perhaps this is why 2 Corinthians 7:1 says that we must purify ourselves “from everything that contaminates body and spirit.”

So what, then, is the soul? The soul is the mind, will, and emotions of the human spirit as they function within the context of a human body. It is both material and immaterial–part body and part spirit. This is why medical science can observe the soul at work in terms of biochemicals and glandular secretions, but they cannot comprehend life and consciousness. They can see the results of the spirit in the body, but they cannot observe the spirit itself because it is immaterial.

Again, the soul is the byproduct of body and spirit being together. Some problems in the soul are spiritual in nature: if deceit is in our spirit, then deceit will be in our soul. And some problems in the soul are physical in nature, like when you get grouchy because you haven’t eaten or slept. If your soul is troubled because you haven’t slept, it’s not because you have something wrong spiritually. You just need some sleep! Likewise, if your spirit is troubled, then it won’t matter how much sleep you get—your soul will still be troubled.

Let's look again at the sinful capabilities of the spirit. Remember, these take root at the moment of conception because of our fallen flesh. Therefore, the person in the world often doesn’t know any difference between their soul and spirit—both act the same and are ruled by the desires of their flesh. But for the Christian, we have a distinction! Hebrews 4:12 says that the word of God divides soul and spirit like a sharp sword. This is necessary because the spirit of the Christian is no longer sinful and contaminated. On the contrary, Ezekiel 11:19, 18:31, and 36:26 all talk about God giving a person a NEW spirit.

When we “die with Christ” by relying on His sacrifice and considering our old life dead, our sinful spirit goes to the cross with Him. But Jesus didn’t stay dead! If we have died with Him, then we are also raised with Him (Romans 6:5). Something happened in Jesus between “day 1” on the cross, during which He literally became sin so that sin could be put to death, and “day 3” when He rose from the dead, victorious over sin, death, and the grave. The same transition takes place in our lives. Second Corinthians 5:17 says that we become new creations: “the old has gone, the new has come!”

In Christ, our spirits are made perfect once again, renewed by the power of the Holy Spirit. And yet, we still tend to wrestle with sin in our mind, will, and emotions. Sometimes this is because we have not yet surrendered our entire spirit over to the Lord (thus requiring a fuller devotion and a deeper death on our part), and other times it is purely because of the desires of our flesh. Whichever the case, this is why the process of sanctification (or being made holy) is so important).

As true Christians, the word of God has come and drawn a distinction between soul and spirit. Whereas it used to be that our spirit was capable of stubbornness, bitterness, deceit, pride, and so forth, we now have a new spirit from the Lord. We start to see that our spirits desire what is right and in harmony with God’s will, while the thoughts, will, and emotions of our souls tend to lean more toward spirit or flesh at any given moment. The believer’s spirit can be trusted while the soul should always be questioned.

Granted, the spirit can still be contaminated as we live in this world (2 Corinthians 7:1). This is why we need to maintain a close relationship with the Lord by which we are continually cleansed and renewed. As David prayed after his sin with Bathsheba, “renew a right spirit within me.”

Proverbs 20:27 says, “The human spirit is the lamp of the LORD that sheds light on one’s inmost being.” Your spirit is the real you. When it is alive in Christ, it exposes the sin in your soul caused by evil desires. It shines light on your inmost being. The contrast in your soul between what is spirit and what is flesh becomes gradually more apparent, and you find it easier and easier to live according to the spirit. Your thoughts aren’t confused by the flesh anymore. You have self-control and a sound mind.

What does this mean for us when it comes to eternity and salvation?

Well, we’ve already seen that the salvation of our spirit comes when we surrender to Christ. The old has gone, the new has come. We receive new life as God gives us a new spirit. This aspect of salvation is instantaneous. But there is another part, which is still being worked out. First Peter 1:9 says that we are currently receiving the salvation of our souls. In other words, this part is a process that happens throughout life. This is likely the form of salvation Paul was talking about when He said to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). And thirdly, we have the salvation of our bodies, which will happen at the end of time when Jesus returns (1 Corinthians 15:35-58).

So when you die during this age, you spirit leaves your body. Your soul ceases to exist, and you stand before God as a spirit. Either your spirit is corrupt because of the contamination of this world, or your spirit is pure because of what Christ did in you by faith. Your spirit—whether pure in Christ or contaminated by the flesh—is free to function and exist without present influence from the desires of the flesh. It is thereby exposed for what it is.

And at the end of time, we will be given new bodies–perfect, glorified bodies. And can you guess what happens when a perfect, glorified body is united with a pure spirit? You have a clean and righteous soul that is free from corruption. This puts you in a condition in which it is easy to live for Christ throughout all eternity.

Again, I wish I could have given you a shorter answer, but I hope this solves your question.

God bless, –Art

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