Author: Ron Graham
You may have wondered whether the words “spirit” and “soul” are two words for the same thing, or whether they refer to two different parts of the human being. If we examine the scriptures carefully, they seem to use the two words interchangeably. However, a few passages are construed by some teachers as making soul and spirit two distinct things.
Thus we have some saying that human beings are made of two parts (“dichotomy”), the physical outward person and the spiritual inward person. But others are saying that the human is made up of three parts (“trichotomy”), namely body, soul, and spirit.
This text is often quoted to show a distinction between soul and spirit: "The word of God is living and active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It pierces even to the division of both soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart" (Hebrews 4:12).
The point of this verse is that the word of God, when it is revealed to a person, can "cut to the heart" (Acts 2:37-38).
The Hebrew writer is not saying that the word divides soul from spirit so as to separate one from the other. Rather he says that the word lays bare the deepest, innermost parts of the inward person.
That writer uses the metaphor of cutting through not only to the joints of the inward self, but even through the joints to the very marrow within them.
If this verse can tell us anything about the distinction between soul and spirit, it is simply that the spirit is an integral part of the soul, just as the marrow is of the joint, and intentions are of one’s thoughts.
This is another text often quoted to show that soul and spirit are separate parts of the self: "May the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved complete..." (1Thessalonians 5:23).
That text is said to show that human nature is “triune” or “trichotomous”, consisting of three parts, spirit, soul, and body. The problem is that the soul and spirit are never clearly enough described and distinguished as to how they constitute individual parts of man’s being.
If the rest of the scripture spoke of the spirit and soul as quite distinct and separate parts of the self, we might have reason to think that Paul is here describing those three distinct parts in the expression "spirit and soul and body".
However scripture really only speaks of human nature having two parts: spiritual and physical, inward and outward.
This verse clearly portrays the human being as having two parts (“dichotomy”), the outward and the inward: "Though our outer man is decaying, yet our inner man is being renewed day by day." (2Corinthians 4:16).
If we were to transpose terms from the previous verse to this verse, it would read, “Though our body is decaying, our spirit and soul is being renewed day by day.”
Similarly, the outward man is described as "flesh and blood" (1Corinthians 15:50). Again we could transpose that expression into the above to make it read, “Though our flesh and blood is decaying, our spirit and soul is being renewed day by day.”
I am making the point that the expression "flesh and blood" matches "outer man", and in the same way "spirit and soul" matches "inner man".
There is of course a difference between flesh and blood, and there may well be a difference between spirit and soul, but the differences in either case do not amount to humans having more than two distinct natures.
You may like to notice another passage: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (Matthew 22:37).
In that passage we have three terms for the inward person: "...heart ...soul ...mind".
If we think that "soul and spirit" (Hebrews 4:12) or "spirit and soul" (1Thessalonians 5:23) represent separate natures, then why not think the same of "heart and soul and mind" (Matthew 22:37)?
Does a person have four separate spiritual natures, spirit, soul, heart, and mind? Even though you might be able to articulate some clear distinction between spirit, soul, heart, and mind, they would still all make up one inner person.
Mary said, "My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour" (Luke 1:46). We may regard these as two lines of poetry using parallelism or saying the same thing in two ways.
Mary is saying that her inner being magnifies God and rejoices in him, isn't she? She is hardly speaking of two separate natures, one that magnifies God and another that rejoices in him, is she?.
Could she not just as well have said, “My spirit exalts the Lord and my soul has rejoiced in God my Saviour”. She could also as well interchanged the words “Lord” and “God” without essentially changing what she meant in these two lines.
Several terms can refer to the spiritual nature: heart, mind, soul, spirit, inward person. Nobody suggests that these are always exactly synonymous. However these terms have such an overlap and association of meaning that we can think of them as referring to the same thing: our spiritual nature.
Discuss the nuances if you must, but take care that you avoid confusion, foolish questions, and unprofitable arguments about words (Titus 3:9, 2Timothy 2:14).
Whether human beings are a dichotomy or trichotomy, we should offer our bodies as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1), thank God for saving our souls (1Peter 1:9), and worship God in spirit and truth (John 4:23-24).