Are Soul and Spirit the Same?
The material on this page was written in the 1970s to respond to the criticisms of Walter Martin, founder of the Christian Research Institute (CRI) and the original “Bible Answer Man.” CRI has since withdrawn those criticisms and reversed its earlier conclusions (see “A Brief History of the Relationship between the Local Churches and the Christian Research Institute”). The text of this article is published here for the historical record, for the important points of truth it addresses, and because CRI’s criticisms, although withdrawn, are still repeated by others.
From: Answers to the Bible Answer Man – Appendix
The Bible Answer Man, on his radio program, consistently presents interpretations of the Bible which are inaccurate, confusing, and often downright false. The following article illustrates one of the errors he has presented to his listeners. We in the local churches cannot tolerate such a misrepresentation of the Bible, and we are burdened to present a clear interpretation of the truth to the public.
His broadcast of November 12, 1977, was a prime example of his confusion concerning a major Bible theme. Several questioners called in requesting his help in understanding the difference between the soul and the spirit in the Bible. The help they received was: (1) his opinion that the soul and the spirit in the Bible are interchangeable terms; (2) that “it really doesn’t make much difference”; (3) that the soul equals the spirit and both are the ego; and (4) the two verses, Hebrews 4:12 and 1 Thessalonians 5:23, both of which are disagreeable to the Bible Answer Man’s point of view, are, with the help of a theologian named Oliver Buswell, twisted around to make them say precisely the opposite of what they do say. Then when one inquirer pled with him on the air to give “just one” example from the Bible which shows that the spirit and the soul are equivalent terms, the Bible Answer Man took five sentences to explain that he didn’t have time to deal with the subject any further, when in less than half a dozen words he could have answered the inquirer’s question (if indeed he knew the answer).
We shall now proceed to answer the questions clearly concerning spirit and soul on which the Bible Answer Man showed himself to be so thoroughly confused.
The Composition of Man
It is clear from the Bible that man is composed of three distinct parts: spirit, soul, and body. It is true that the ordinary concept, even among Christians, is that human beings are composed of two parts—soul and body. According to this concept, the body is the part of man which can be seen, and the soul is the part which is unseen. This is a purely natural concept and is not the revelation of God. While the Bible Answer Man claims that the terms “soul” and “spirit” are interchangeable, the Bible never confuses the two as though they were the same. Not only are these terms different; their very natures are different from each other. In 1 Thessalonians 5:23 Paul clearly divides man into three distinct parts. According to the literal Greek the verse reads, “And the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely, and your whole [being]; the spirit and the soul and the body be kept blameless in the presence of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Here Paul points out that the whole man is composed of three distinct parts, “the spirit and the soul and the body.” Each part is preceded by the definite article, and each part is also connected by the conjunction and (in Greek, kai). The Bible Answer Man’s contention that the Greek word kai can in this case be translated “even” is fallacious, for this would make all the parts equal to each other. Then the verse would read, “the spirit even the soul even the body.” In that case the spirit would equal the soul, and both would equal the body. I wonder if he would also exchange “even” for “and” in Matthew 28:19, a verse of similar grammatical construction. The verse would then read this way; “Go ye therefore, and disciple all nations, baptizing them into the name of the Father, even of the Son, even of the Holy Spirit.” The Bible Answer Man’s much heralded expertise in the original languages of the Bible is used not to make the Bible clearer and more easily understood, but rather to cloud and confuse his audience. To make 1 Thessalonians 5:23 say that man does not have three distinct parts is to turn the verse into its opposite meaning.
According to 1 Thessalonians 5:23 a person is wholly sanctified by the spirit and the soul and the body being kept. From this it can be seen that the whole person comprises these three parts.
A Matter of Great Importance
Concerning this matter the Bible Answer Man said, “I think it really doesn’t make much difference.” This reveals his ignorance of the Bible, and reflects the depth of the darkness in his spiritual perception. This indicates that he is not a man who knows the spirit, for he himself believes it makes no difference whether one can distinguish between the spirit and the soul. Concerning the importance of knowing the difference between the spirit and the soul, Watchman Nee has said this:
Is it a matter of any consequence to divide the spirit and soul? It is an issue of supreme importance for it affects tremendously the spiritual life of a believer. How can a believer understand spiritual life if he does not know what is the extent of the realm of the spirit? Without such understanding how can he grow spiritually? To fail to distinguish between spirit and soul is fatal to spiritual maturity. Christians often account what is soulical as spiritual, and thus they remain in a soulish state and seek not what is really spiritual. How can we escape loss if we confuse what God has divided? (The Spiritual Man, vol. 1, p. 22).
Three Classes of People
In 1 Corinthians 2:14-15 and in 3:1, Paul distinguishes between three classes of people. First there is the “natural man” in verse 14. Here the word “natural” in the original Greek is “soulish.” So in verse 14 we have the “soulish man.” In verse 15 we have the “spiritual man,” and in 3:1 we have “fleshy men” or “infants in Christ.” The three verses according to the Greek read this way: “But a soulish man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. But the spiritual man discerns all things…and I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to fleshy men, as to infants in Christ.” Here Paul clearly distinguishes between “the soulish man,” “the spiritual man,” and “fleshy men.” two, verse 14, says clearly that “a soulish man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.” How then can the Bible Answer Man say that it doesn’t make much difference? A person who lives in the psychological part of his being (the Greek word psuche [soul] is the origin of the English word psyche) does not accept and does not understand the things of God. The reason is clear: the soul is not the part of man which receives and understands spiritual things. In 1 Corinthians 2:12-13 Paul says, “that we might know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, interpreting (or communicating) spiritual things to spiritual men” (Margin, NASV). It is quite clear from this passage that spiritual things can be communicated only to men who know the spirit, and that those who live in the soul can never accept or understand the things of the spirit. For the Bible Answer Man to say, therefore, that it makes no difference whether we distinguish between the soul and the spirit is spiritual suicide. It means that he himself does not know the difference between these two realms. The fact is that in the realm of the spirit men can receive, communicate, be taught, accept, understand, and discern the things of the Spirit; while in the realm of the soul spiritual things can neither be received nor understood.
There is also a third class of men referred to by Paul in chapter three, verse 1. These are called “fleshy men,” “infants in Christ.” This class of men is regenerated, having the life of God and the Spirit of God. But instead of paying attention to the spirit, they walk according to the flesh. They have the Holy Spirit dwelling in their spirit, yet they do not know the spirit. They neither submit to the Spirit nor are they ruled by the Spirit. Concerning the Bible they may pretend to be very learned, yet in depth of understanding they perceive very little. The Corinthian believers were in this class. Paul calls them “infants in Christ,” yet they considered themselves quite mature in spiritual things. According to chapter eight, verse 1, they were puffed up in knowledge, and in chapter thirteen though they could “speak with the tongues of men and of angels,” had “prophecy,” knew “all mysteries,” and “all knowledge,” had “all faith,” and could “remove mountains,” yet in verse 11 Paul referred to them as “infants” and told them that they should put away “infantile things.” The Corinthian Christians, mighty in gifts, puffed up in knowledge, no doubt glorying in their intellectual attainments and parading their linguistic abilities, Paul nevertheless calls “infants in Christ.” They are an excellent example of Christians who make no distinction between soul and spirit. Thinking they represented the highest in Christian attainment, they in fact could not receive the things of God nor could they understand them. Neither gifts nor knowledge qualified them as spiritual men.
The soul belongs to the realm of the natural man, and the spirit belongs to the realm of the Spirit. Anyone who cannot distinguish the difference between these two categories is in darkness. It means he cannot tell what is of God and what is not of God. He may pose as an expert on the Bible, but in fact he cannot know the Bible because the Bible can be interpreted only by men who know the spirit.
One other verse shows the distinct cleavage between soul and spirit. It is Jude 19. “These are the ones who cause divisions, natural [soulish], not having spirit” (Gk.). Jude was referring to the degraded situation that will exist at the end of this age in Christianity, where there will be pretenders to spiritual things. These men will be the source of divisions, because they are soulish men devoid of spirit. Here again it is clear that the realm of the soul and the realm of the spirit are two entirely different spheres. The realm of the spirit is the realm of God’s activity, and the realm of the soul is the realm of merely human and sometimes even demonic activity. The importance of being able to distinguish between these two realms cannot be overestimated.
The Ego is Not the Spirit
The Bible Answer Man told his radio audience on November 12 that the ego is the spirit. To use his words, “You, the ego, are the soul or the spirit.” This can be easily shown to be fallacious. According to the Greek, Galatians 2:20 reads, “I have been crucified with Christ and I [ego] live no more, but Christ lives in me.” This verse tells us two things: First, that I (ego) have been crucified; and second, that Christ lives in me. Keeping in mind these two facts, let us now read 2 Timothy 4:22, “The Lord Jesus Christ [is] with your spirit.” According to the Bible Answer Man the human ego equals the human spirit. But this does not square with the Bible. For the Bible says that the ego has been crucified, and that Christ lives in me. And the place in which Christ lives in me is my spirit. If my ego equals my spirit, and these have been crucified, how could Christ now be living with my spirit? The fact is, my ego, as the expression of my self, was crucified with Christ, but my spirit was made alive when I was born again (John 3:6). Anyone who cannot distinguish between the ego and the human spirit is surely one who cannot distinguish between the things which differ.
On the radio program already referred to, the Bible Answer Man was asked if he would “explain Hebrews 4:12, where it says that the soul and spirit are to be divided by the Word of God.” In reply the Bible Answer Man relayed “the explanation given by a very great Greek scholar, Dr. J. Oliver Buswell.” According to Marshall’s Interlinear Greek-English New Testament, Hebrews 4:12 reads as follows, “For the Word of God is living and operative and sharper beyond every two-edged sword and passing through as far as division of soul and of spirit, both of joints and of marrow, and [is] able to judge [the] thoughts and intentions of a heart.” The Bible Answer Man gave a rather long and confusing explanation of the use of soul and spirit in this verse, but the conclusion and essence of his explanation was that “the soul and the spirit are two forms of the same thing.” When asked how the two could be divided from each other if they are in fact the same thing, he replied, “You are missing the point.” But he himself never did explain what the point is in the verse which says that the Word of God divides the soul from the spirit. The point is very simple: in man there is the realm of the soul which is natural, and the realm of the spirit which can receive, appropriate, and understand the things of God. These two realms must be clearly divided asunder so that man can know the difference between the realm of the soul and the realm of the spirit. It is the living Word of God penetrating his being which makes such a division and which separates these realms from one another.
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 Christian Experience
This matter of distinguishing the spirit from the soul is not just something of academic or doctrinal interests. It is vital to our Christian 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 Christian, your spirit has been made alive by the Spirit (John 3:6), and today Jesus Christ is with your spirit (2 Tim. 4:22). There is not one verse in the whole Bible which says that your soul was born again or that Christ today is in your soul. Neither is there a single verse which says that we should worship God with our soul (although many Christians try it). But there is a verse which says that if we are going to worship God, we must worship Him in spirit (John 4:24).
May all who read these words be exercised to discern between their soul and their spirit and to walk before God in spirit.