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The Distinction Between the Soul and the Spirit


The Distinction Between the Soul and the Spirit

by Richard Young

The Scriptures make a distinction made between the soul and the
spirit. The most explicit example is in Hebrews 4:12: "For the word of
God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and
piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and
marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart."
Another good example is found in I Thessalonians 5:23: "may your
spirit and soul and body be preserved complete, without blame at the
coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." However, the creation of Adam and
his subsequent fall also provides us with an understanding of how the
soul and spirit are distinct. When God created Adam it says that He
breathed into him and that he became, literally, "a living soul" (Gen
2:7). Later God told Adam that in the day that he eats of the tree of
knowledge of good and evil that he would certainly die (Gen
2:17). After Adam ate of this tree he did not die for it says that
"all the days that Adam lived were nine hundred and thirty years, and
he died" (Gen 5:5). So unless God misspoke or lied to Adam (as
suggested by some very liberal theologians) then the death that Adam
experienced that day in the Garden was not physical or
psychological. His soul and body did not immediately die that day. But
it seems that what died that day was his spirit.

Some believe that this reference to the "day" of Adam's death
refers to a 1,000 year period because, according to Psalm 90:4, "For a
thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it passes by, or
as a watch in the night". I understand Ps 90:4 as indicating that all
of time is spread out before God - since He is eternal and not subject
to time. It does not seem inteded to establish some sort of equation,
like, (1 God day) = (1,000 man years).
This is almost like creating an equation for converting "dog years" to
"man years": (7 dog years) = (1 man year).
This sort of equation does not seem to make sense if we understand God
as eternal and independent of time. In light of this, then, we are
left with the death of Adam after his eating of the forbidden fruit as
being a spiritual death and not a physical death.

So what is the distinction between the soul and the spirit? Oehler
described the soul in this way: "Man is not spirit, but has it: he is
soul. .... In the soul, which sprang from the spirit, and exists
continually through it, lies the individuality-in the case of man, his
personality, his self, his ego" Old Testament Theology (vol. I,
p.217). Further, the Scriptures refer to the soul being redeemed and
saved (see, for example, Psalms 16:10; 49:8,15) but not so much the
spirit. So the thing which a person identifies as "myself" is saved.

The spirit then is analogous to the body. Metaphorically, functions
of the body are used to describe functions of the spirit. Seeing and
hearing are used to describe how we perceive the things of God (e.g.,
Matt 13:13-16). Eating and drinking are used to describe our spiritual
sustenance (see I Cor. 10:3,4). Jesus said that one must be born of
the spirit to see the kingdom of God (John 3:3). He likened it to a
physical birth. As far as God is concerned our spirit was functionally
"dead;" it was completely non-functional - blind, deaf, dumb, and
paralyzed. Without a living spirit our soul lacks the medium to
interact with God. But spiritual birth brings the spirit to life. On
one hand, the body is the medium by which our soul interacts with the
physical world. In the same way, I see our spirit as the medium by
which our soul interacts with God, for Jesus said, "God is spirit, and
those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth" (John
4:24). And just as the body and soul affect one another so does the
spirit and soul affect one another.

One cannot be dogmatic about this and perhaps it is just a matter
of semantics. All that really matters is that "I", no matter how one
would like to define or describe it, am saved and united with God.