The Bible talks about the body, spirit, and soul. But we often end up with the question, “what is the difference between the spirit and the soul?” We know that our body is our physical substance. But the spirit and the soul is the immaterial part of us, and we may struggle to understand the difference between the two.
There are two main Christian viewpoints on this. One is called “Trichotomy”, which is the belief that there is a spirit, soul, and body, where the soul and spirit are two distinct entities. The soul is said to be the mind, will, and emotions where we think and feel. Whereas the spirit gives us the ability to have an intimate relationship with God and is made alive and perfect the moment, we are born again.
The other view is called a “Dichotomy”, which is the view that the spirit and soul are synonymous to each other and that soul is just another word for spirit.
When we look at the Bible to identify the difference, we do not see a clear definition of the spirit and the soul. Instead, we see passages representing the use of soul and spirit interchangeably and other scriptures seemingly to set them apart.
Some passages that represent the interchangeable use of the souls and spirit can be found in:
Matthew 10:28 “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”
Luke 1:46-47 “And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,”
In other passages, it seems to show a separation between the soul and the spirit.
Hebrews 4:12 “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
1 Thessalonians 5:23 “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Let us briefly examine the two viewpoints and discuss how scriptures support or challenge them.
Trichotomy is the belief that the human nature is made up of the physical body which connects us to the physical world around us, the soul which is the essence of our being and finally our spirit which connects us to God.
Let us look at some of the passages that support this perspective.
One of the key passages to support Trichotomy is from Hebrews 4:12 saying “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
When we read this passage, it is easy to jump to the conclusion that the soul and spirit are separate. But we need to understand that the language used doesn’t work mechanically with one meaning per word; instead, similar terms are used together for supporting and strengthening an idea.
For example, Jesus uses similar language in Mark 12:30 saying “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.'” Jesus is not saying that we are made up of four different entities; instead, He is commanding us to love Him with our entire being.
Hebrews 4:12 can be interpreted, by saying that the Word of God has the ability to penetrate and divide soul and spirit, as opposed to dividing “soul from spirit”. This passage uses a parallel example saying that just as a sharp sword gets inside the bones dividing joints and marrow, similarly the thoughts and intentions of the heart are penetrated even to dividing soul and spirit – judging the thoughts and attitude of the heart. Scripture can penetrate and discover our innermost intentions and thoughts, exposing all disobedience to God.
Another passage used to support Trichotomy is from 1 Thessalonians 5:23 “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Just like in the previous verse, it may seem that scriptures are making a distinction between three components but again what can be seen here is that synonymous words are being used to communicate the totality and thoroughness of God’s sanctifying work. In other words, God will sanctify you entirely, and God will do that to our complete being, whatever it is called.
The other common belief with Trichomoty is that the spirit only becomes alive when you receive Christ. The passage is taken from Romans 8:10 “But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” In other words, the implication is that all people have souls, but only Christians have spirits that are “alive”.
When we look into scripture, we see that the Bible speaks about having a spirit that is in rebellion against God as opposed to the belief that the spirit is only alive when you are born again.
Deuteronomy 2:30 “But Sihon the king of Heshbon would not let us pass by him, for the LORD your God hardened his spirit and made his heart obstinate, that he might give him into your hand, as he is this day.”
Again in Psalms 78:8 “…a generation whose heart was not steadfast,
whose spirit was not faithful to God.”
The passage in Romans 8:10 implies that we were out of fellowship with God because of sin, but now we are to consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God (Romans 6:11). We are a new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17). Amen!
Dichotomy is the viewpoint that considers the soul and spirit to be the same, and just different words used interchangeably in scripture. This is the most widely held scholarly view on the subject of the soul and the spirit.
The reason for this is the use of soul and spirit being used synonymously throughout scriptures. Let us look at a few examples.
Soul and spirit used synonymously.
Scriptures show that the body is comprised of the body and soul in some passages. Likewise, in other passages, the same is described as being composed of body and spirit.
Matthew 10:28 says “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” Here we see that the reference to body and soul.
Similarly, Ecclesiastes 12:7 says “and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” This refers to the body and spirit.
Soul and spirit can communicate to God.
Scriptures also present to us that our souls communicate with God, and in the same manner, that it is our spirit that speaks to God. Hebrews 6:19 refers to our soul; saying, “We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain,” Whereas Romans 8:16 refers to our spirit; saying, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,”
Soul and spirit can be affected by sin.
Scriptures reveal that our soul can be affected by sin. In the same manner, our spirit can also be affected by sin.
1 Peter 1:22 says “Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart,”
In contrast, 1 Corinthians 7:1 says “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.”
By looking at these examples, we can see that the spirit can do everything that the soul can do and vice versa—even in terms of thinking, feeling, deciding, knowing, and perceiving:
- In Acts 17:16, Paul’s spirit was provoked within him
- In John 13:21 Jesus was troubled in spirit
- In Mark 2:8 Jesus perceived in his spirit
- In Romans 8:16 The Holy Spirit bears witness to our spirit
- In Isaiah 29:24, those who go astray in spirit will come to understanding
Finally, many other scriptures support the fact that various terms are used to describe our physical and immaterial being, for example:
- Matthew 10:28 talks about the body and soul
- Romans 12:1-2 talks about the body and mind
- 1 Corinthians 7:34, James 2:26 talks about the body and spirit
- 1 Corinthians 5:5 talks about the flesh and the spirit
- Romans 2:28-29 talks about the flesh and heart
- 2 Corinthians 4:16 talks about the outer man and the inner man
By looking at all of these examples and scriptures, it seems that soul and spirit are terms used to describe the immaterial part of people and is used interchangeably throughout scripture.
In conclusion, regardless of your viewpoint, scripture is clear about the importance of growing. Be it the physical part, or the immaterial part. 2 Corinthians 7:1 says “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.”
I encourage you to seek God with every part of your being, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God. Amen!