The terms soul and spirit have been discussed at length throughout philosophy, literature, and religion. Even scientists have ventured remarks about the soul. Often, though, soul and spirit are interpreted to mean the same thing and end up being used interchangeably.
This can lead to the question, “Is there a difference between the soul and the spirit, and does it really matter if there is?”
Regardless of what philosophy, literature, religion, or some scientists say, we have to ask, “What does the Bible say?” The Bible clearly makes many references to both. So what does God’s Word say about our soul and our spirit? And why can knowing this be a crucial factor in our spiritual progress and relationship with God?
Are they the same thing?
1 Thessalonians 5:23 says, “And the God of peace Himself sanctify you wholly, and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame, at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
This verse clearly tells us that human beings are made up of three parts—the spirit, soul, and body. In the original Greek language, the conjunction “and” in “spirit and soul and body” indicates the three are different from one another. So just as the body is separate and distinct from the soul, the soul is also separate and distinct from the spirit, as illustrated in the diagram below:
Hebrews 4:12 makes an even finer distinction, saying, “For the word of God is living and operative and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit and of joints and marrow, and able to discern the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
From this verse, we can understand that the soul and the spirit are so close to one another that the two require the word of God to divide them, to separate them from each other.
Based on these two verses alone, we can conclude that our soul and our spirit are not the same thing. In fact, it is evidently not only important for us to see that they are distinct components, but also to discern one from the other.
What are the functions of the spirit and the soul?
Chapter 1 of Basic Elements of the Christian Life, vol. 1, explains that God created human beings with three parts—a spirit, soul, and body—and their corresponding functions.
It’s not difficult to realize that our body functions to allow us to interact with the physical world and the things in it through our five senses.
The function of our spirit, on the other hand, is a little less obvious. Its function is spiritual—to contact and receive God Himself. Once we receive the Lord into our spirit by believing in Him, we can live our human lives in continuous contact with the Lord by using our spirit.
So what about our soul? Our soul is basically who we are—our mind, our emotion, and our will. But the function of our soul is to express God.
In Luke 1:46-47, Mary said that her soul magnified the Lord. To magnify something implies that something hidden is made large, or expressed, for all to see. Note 1 of verse 47 in the Recovery Version explains this occurrence:
“First, Mary’s spirit exulted in God; then her soul magnified the Lord. Her praise to God issued from her spirit and was expressed through her soul. Her spirit was filled with joy in God her Savior, and her soul manifested that joy for the magnifying of the Lord. She lived and acted in her spirit, which directed her soul.”
Here we begin to see the answer to the question of whether it matters that the spirit and soul are different from each other. Mary magnified the Lord in her soul, but she first enjoyed and experienced Him in her spirit. We can never express God starting from our soul alone. We can try to copy Him by trying our best to be good and godly, but even this always falls short of truly expressing God. This is because the true expression of God must come from our spirit, with God as its source and with our soul as its channel. This is what it means for us to express, and therefore magnify, the Lord.
How can we express God?
God became a man called Jesus Christ. Throughout the course of His human living, Jesus expressed God fully. When we believed in Him, Christ came to live in our human spirit, regenerating it with His divine life. Now we have another source to live by—God Himself. We can live by this source by using, or exercising, our spirit.
In Romans 8:4 and 1:9, the Bible charges us to walk according to our spirit, that is, to have our life and living according to our spirit, and to do things in our spirit, not our soul. In this way, the source of our living is God Himself with His life in our spirit, not our own thoughts, feelings, and decisions from our soul.
We can live in such a way by contacting and enjoying Christ in our spirit and allowing Him to grow in us day by day. As we do this, His life will spread from our spirit into our soul so that we can genuinely express God more and more. The key is to use our spirit to experience Christ every day.