The Difference Between The Spirit And The Soul
If we are going to know our human spirit, we must see the difference between the spirit and the soul. The most important passage showing us the difference between the spirit and the soul is 1 Corinthians 2:14-15: “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man.”
The word “natural”, or in the Douay Rheim version, “sensual”, are words that have been transliterated, sometimes called “Romanized.” That simply means that the Bible translators came up with a new word – they took the original word and came up with an English word that sounds similar to the pronunciation of the original word. For instance, When the children of Israel journeyed in the wilderness between Egypt and Canaan, God “rained” bread from heaven – bread that the Bible calls “manna” (Exodus 16:4,35). When the Israelites first saw that food, which was small, white, and round, they said, “What is it?” (Exodus 16:15). In fact, the Hebrew word which is translated as “What is it” is the same word that is written in English as “manna.” “Manna” simply means “What is it?”
It is the same with the words “natural” and “sensual”. St. Paul speaks of man as consisting of body (soma), soul (psyche), and spirit (pneuma); the soma is our physical nature; the psyche is our intellectual nature, embracing also our desires and human affections; the pneuma is our spiritual nature. So with this being said, in each of us there is a somatical man, a psychical man, and a pneumatical man; and according as any one of those parts of the nature dominates over the other, so is the character of the individual person. One in whom the soma is strongest is a “carnal,” or “fleshly,” man-(the body); one in whom the intellect or affections pre-dominate is a “natural,” or “psychic,” man- (the soul); and one in whom the spirit rules (which it can do only when enlightened and guided by the Spirit of God, which acts on it) is a “spiritual” man-(the spirit).
A Soulish Man
And so verse 14 tells us clearly that the soulish-the “psychic” man, the intellectual nature, that embraces also our desires and human affections, does not receive the things of the Spirit of God. The soulish man can never know anything about God. There is no possibility for the soulish man to know God, but the following verse says that the spirit, the human spirit, knows. With the soulish man there is no possibility to know God, but with the spiritual man there is the full possibility. So by these two verses you can see the difference between the soul and the spirit. If you are a man of the soul, you can never know anything of God. If you are a man of the spirit, then you know the things of God. By this passage we can see the difference between the spirit and the soul, yet so many Christians today still insist on saying that the spirit and the soul are synonymous terms. However, 1 Corinthians 2:14-15 shows that with the soul there is no possibility to know anything of God, but with the spirit there is the full possibility.
If you are a man of the soul, you are just in darkness with the things of God. You have to be a man of the spirit. Then you will know the things of God. These verses reveal a great difference between the soul and the spirit. There is no possibility for us to know anything of God if we are a soulish man. What is a soulish man? A soulish man is a man living by the soul and in the soul. The difference between being soulish and being spiritual is the very difference between the soul and the spirit. We cannot say that the spirit is the same as the soul. If we say this, we are in darkness. We all must be very, very clear that the spirit is absolutely different from the soul. Are the ears the same as the eyes? The eye and the ear are not synonymous terms. You cannot say this. The eyes are the eyes, and the ears are the ears. These are two different organs, two different parts of your being. In like manner, the soul is not the spirit, and the spirit is not the soul. But in saying that understand that the spirit and the soul are joined together in such away, that it takes the Sword of the Spirit, the spoken Word of God, to “pierce in such away to make a division of soul and of spirit” (Hebrews 4:12)
JOINTS AND MARROW
The the spoken Word of God divides the spirit from the soul just as the sword divides the marrow from the joints, which are the bones. The marrow is not the same as the bones. The marrow is something within the bones, the joints. In the same principle the spirit is something within the soul. It is easy for people to see the bones. But it is not so easy for people to realize what the marrow is. You have to break the bones to get to the marrow. In like manner, the spirit is under the covering of the soul, but it is absolutely different from the soul.
SPIRIT AND SOUL AND BODY
Second, we have 1 Thessalonians 5:23. : “And may the God of peace himself sanctify you in all things; that your whole spirit, and soul, and body, may be preserved blameless in the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This verse clearly mentions that we have three parts—the spirit and the soul and the body. Two conjunctions connect three things.
THE SPIRIT HAVING EXULTED AND THE SOUL MAGNIFYING
Luke 1:46-47 Even Mary new there was a difference when she said, “My soul doth magnify the Lord. And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” My soul magnifies, and my spirit has rejoices. These verses again clearly show the uniqueness of the soul and the spirit. The spirit rejoices, and the soul magnifies the Lord. Again, if we are going to know the spirit, we have to see the difference between the spirit and the soul.
DENYING THE SOUL
In the teaching of the New Testament, especially in the Gospels, it always tells us that we have to deny the soul, to lose the soul, but it never tells us that we have to deny the spirit. In the Epistles we are always told that we have to walk according to the spirit, live in the spirit, and do things by the spirit. In the Gospels there is the denying of the soul; then in the Epistles there is walking according to the spirit (Romans 8:4). The New Testament does not tell us to walk and live and do things in the soul.
Matthew 10:38-39 says, “He who does not take his cross and follow after Me is not worthy of Me. He who finds his soul/life [the word here in Greek is psychē , interpreted at least 58 times as “soul”] shall lose it, and he who loses his soul/life for My sake shall find it.” Then Matthew 16:24-26 says, “Jesus said to His disciples, If anyone wants to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save his soul/life shall lose it; but whoever loses his soul/life for My sake shall find it. For what shall a man be profited if he gains the whole world, but forfeits his soul/life? Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul/life?” The soul must be denied.
Then Mark 8:35-36 says, “Whoever wants to save his soul/life shall lose it; but whoever will lose his soul/life for My sake and the gospel’s shall save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul/life?” Luke 9:24-25 says, “Whoever wants to save his soul/life shall lose it; but whoever loses his soul/life for My sake, this one shall save it. For what is a man profited if he gains the whole world but lose himself, and be a castaway?”
John 12:25 says, “He who loves his soul/life loses it; and he who hates his soul/life in this world shall keep it unto eternal life.” In all the four Gospels the Lord told us again and again that we have to lose our soul, to loose our life, to deny the soul, to deny our life, but we cannot find a word telling us that we have to lose the spirit or deny the spirit. On the contrary, the Epistles charge us to walk according to the spirit, to do things in the spirit, and to pray in the spirit (Rom. 8:4; Rom. 1:9; Eph. 6:18). In the teachings of the Gospels we are told to deny the soul, to lose the soul, but in the teachings of all the Epistles we have to take care of the spirit, walk in the spirit, do things in the spirit, and pray in the spirit. So there is a big, big difference between the soul and the spirit.
What the Early Christians Said
Let’s look at some representative quotes from the early Christians on this subject.
Tatian, writing around A.D. 160, said:
We recognize two kinds of spirits [in man]. One kind is called the soul, but the other is greater than the soul. It is an image and likeness of God. Both existed in the first humans. So in one sense, those humans were material. But, in another sense, they were superior to matter.1.
Irenaeus wrote around A.D. 170 or 180. He went into more detail about spirit, soul, and body:
For that flesh which been molded is not a complete man in itself. Rather, it is the body of a man, only a part of him. Likewise, by itself, the soul does not constitute the man. Rather, it is only the soul of a man, another part of him. Finally, the spirit does not constitute the man, for it is called the spirit and not the man. Instead, it is the commingling and joinder of all of these that constitutes the complete man. It is for this reason that the apostle (explaining himself) makes it clear that the saved man is a complete man as well as a spiritual man. For in the first Epistle to the Thessalonians, he says, “Now the God of peace sanctify you completely. And may your spirit, soul, and body be preserved whole without defect to the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Now, what was his object in praying that these three—the soul, body, and spirit—might be preserved to the coming of the Lord, unless he was aware of the reintegration and union of the three? He shows they will be heirs of one and the same salvation. For this reason he also declares that those persons are complete who present unto the Lord these three parts without offense.2 .
A little later in the same work, Ireneaus writes: Among the other truths proclaimed by the apostles, there is also this one, “That flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” [1 Cor. 15:50]. This is the passage which is quoted by all the [Gnostic] heretics in support of their folly, with an attempt to pester us. They use this to claim that the handiwork of God [i.e., the physical body] is not saved. They do not take this fact into consideration that, as I have said, there are three things out of which the complete man is composed: flesh, soul, and spirit. One of these does indeed preserve and fashion the man—the spirit. It is united and formed to another—the flesh. Then there is that which is between these two—the soul. The soul is sometimes indeed raised up by it, when it follows the spirit. But sometimes the soul sympathizes with the flesh and falls into carnal lusts.3
Origen also wrote extensively about the tripartite nature of man.
For example, in his Commentary on Romans he writes: We frequently find in the Scriptures, and we have often discussed this topic, that man may be said to be spirit, body, and soul. And when it is said, “The flesh desires contrary to the spirit, and the spirit desires contrary to the flesh,” the soul is undoubtedly placed in the middle. Either it gives assent to the desires of the spirit or it is inclined towards the lusts of the flesh. If it joins itself to the flesh, it becomes one body with it in its lusts and sinful desires. But if it should associate itself with the spirit, it shall be one spirit with it.4
In the interest of full disclosure, I do want to tell you that there was one early Christian who did not hold to this view of the tripartite nature of man. That person was Tertullian. He believed the soul and spirit to be one and the same. However, as far as I know, he was the only exception. Nevertheless, even Tertullian was still in complete agreement with what the other early Christians believed about the spirit. He believed in its desire to do what is right and in its ongoing struggle with the flesh. Where the other early Christians said that the spirit and the flesh were in a contest to see who can control the soul, Tertullian said that the two were in a contest to control the person. So in the end, what Tertullian taught was very similar to what the rest of the church taught.
For example, think for a moment about what Jesus told the apostles in the Garden of Gethsemene: “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41). We’ve all read that verse dozens of times. In fact, you’ve probably read it hundreds of times. But did you ever catch the significance of what Jesus was saying about the spirit and the flesh? I know I never did until I read the early Christian writings. It was actually Tertullian who first brought the true significance of Jesus’ words to my attention. He wrote: We read that “the flesh is weak,” and we thereby soothe our consciences at times. Yet, we also read that “the spirit is strong.” For both expressions occur in the same sentence. Flesh is an earthly material. Spirit is a heavenly one. Why then are we so prone to make excuses for ourselves? Why do we offer our weak part as our defense? Should we not rather look at our strong part? Why shouldn’t it be the earthly that yields to the heavenly? Since the spirit is stronger than the flesh, being of a nobler origin, it is our own fault if we follow the weaker of the two.
1 Tatian, Address to the Greeks, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 2, p. 70
2 Irenaeus, Against Heresies, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, p.532.
4 Origen, Commentary on Romans, vol. 1, p. 94.
5 Tertullian, quoted in The Pilgrim Road, p. 22.