The soul and the spirit are the two primary immaterial aspects that Scripture ascribes to humanity. It can be confusing to attempt to discern the precise differences between the two. The word “spirit” refers only to the immaterial facet of humanity. Human beings have a spirit, but we are not spirits. However, in Scripture, only believers are said to be spiritually alive (1 Corinthians 2:11; Hebrews 4:12; James 2:26), while unbelievers are spiritually dead (Ephesians 2:1-5; Colossians 2:13). In Paul’s writing, the spiritual was pivotal to the life of the believer (1 Corinthians 2:14; 3:1; Ephesians 1:3;5:19; Colossians 1:9; 3:16). The spirit is the element in humanity which gives us the ability to have an intimate relationship with God. Whenever the word “spirit” is used, it refers to the immaterial part of humanity that “connects” with God, who Himself is spirit (John 4:24).
The word “soul” can refer to both the immaterial and material aspects of humanity. Unlike human beings having a spirit, human beings are souls. In its most basic sense, the word “soul” means “life.” However, beyond this essential meaning, the Bible speaks of the soul in many contexts. One of these is humanity’s eagerness to sin (Luke 12:26). Humanity is naturally evil, and our souls are tainted as a result. The life principle of the soul is removed at the time of physical death (Genesis 35:18; Jeremiah 15:2). The soul, as with the spirit, is the center of many spiritual and emotional experiences (Job 30:25; Psalm 43:5; Jeremiah 13:17). Whenever the word “soul” is used, it can refer to the whole person, whether alive or in the afterlife.
The soul and the spirit are connected, but separable (Hebrews 4:12). The soul is the essence of humanity’s being; it is who we are. The spirit is the aspect of humanity that connects with God.
Functions of Soul and Spirit
A careful study of the Bible will show that man has a spirit (Job 32:8), that his spirit has a definite function (Rom. 1:9), and that the function of the spirit is different from the function of the soul (Luke 1:46-47). Since all of God’s communications with men occur in the spirit, it is crucial that a believer know his spirit. If he does not know his own spirit, he does not know how to have fellowship with God in the spirit. Not only that, he mistakenly takes the thoughts or emotions of the soul for the activity of the spirit. Confining himself to the realm of the soul, he seldom reaches the realm of the spirit. The Bible clearly shows first that we have a human spirit, second that our human spirit is not synonymous with our soul, and third that it is not the same as the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:16).
The Human Spirit
According to the revelation of the Bible and the experience of believers, the human spirit can be said to have three main functions. These three functions are conscience (Rom. 9:1; 8:16), intuition(Mark 2:8), and communion (John 4:24). The conscience is the part of the spirit which distinguishes right from wrong and is not influenced by knowledge stored in the mind; it is rather a spontaneous direct judgment. The intuition is the “knowing” part of the spirit. All true knowledge originates not in the mind, but in the spirit. The revelations of God and the movements of the Holy Spirit are known to the believer through his intuition. A believer must, therefore, take care to heed these two aspects of his spirit: the speaking of his conscience and the teaching of his intuition.
Communion is the third function of the spirit, and is related to the worship of God. The soul is not competent to worship God. According to John 4:24, “God is a Spirit and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth.”
The Human Soul
Not only does man possess a spirit which enables him to function in the spiritual realm; he also possesses a soul which is the organ of his self-consciousness. The soul is the seat of the human personality. The ingredients which make us human beings belong to the soul. The intellect, thought, ideals, love, emotion, understanding, decision, choice, and other like qualities are all associated with the soul. The three main functions of the soul are the will (Job 7:15), the mind (Lam. 3:20, RSV), and the emotion (2 Sam. 5:8; Deut. 6:5). The will is the instrument for making decisions and choices. The second function of the soul is the mind, the instrument for thinking. It is in this part of the soul that man reasons and has knowledge (Prov. 2:10). The third function of the soul is the emotion. This is the instrument of likes and dislikes. Through the emotions we are able to express love or hatred, joyfulness, anger, sadness, or happiness. A shortage in this area will render us insensitive. By a careful study of the Bible we cannot help but be impressed that these three primary functions of the personality belong to the soul.
Vital to our Spiritual Experience
This matter of distinguishing the spirit from the soul is not just something of academic or doctrinal interests. It is vital to our spiritual experience. If we do not know our human spirit, how shall God communicate with us (Job 32:8); how shall we worship Him (John 4:24); how shall we receive revelation from God (Eph. 1:17); and how shall we pray properly (Eph. 6:18, praying…in spirit)? These vital experiences are a matter of knowing our spirit. Even serving the Lord must be done in and with our spirit (Rom. 1:9). Many today are satisfied simply to find an open door to serve the Lord, but Paul was regulated rather by the rest in his spirit (2 Cor. 2:12-13).
If you are a Christ follower, your spirit has been made alive by the Spirit (John 3:6), and today Jesus Christ is with your spirit (2 Tim. 4:22). If we are going to worship God, we must worship Him in spirit (John 4:24).
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