“What is the difference between soul and spirit?”
This is a particularly difficult question to answer because in the scriptures both the words “soul” and “spirit” have multiple meanings depending on their various contexts. The question is further complicated by the fact that two languages are being used: Hebrew in the Old Testament and Greek in the New Testament.
We encounter this in English too. The word “run” is s classic example:
I’m going to run (to the office.), I’m going to run (for office.) My brother won’t run. My clock won’t run. My car is running. My nose is running. The river is running. …a running total. …a running commentary. …a run in with the law. …a run in with the in-laws. I ran into Fred at the mall. I ran into Fred (as I backed the car up) at the mall.
Well, I’ve run on with these examples long enough! Clearly, what the word “run” means depends greatly upon context.
So it is with the words “soul” and “spirit.”
Depending on context the word “soul” may mean an individual person “the soul who sins will surely die” (Ezek. 18:20), biological life “…those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” (Mt. 2:20), intellect and emotion “And now my life ebbs away” (Job 30:16), and of course it is that eternal entity which Christ Jesus came to save “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul” (Mt. 10:28).
Depending on its context the word “spirit” may mean breath or wind “…striving after the wind“ (Eccl. 1:14,17, a non-material being “God is spirit…” (John 4:24), angels are spirit beings “Are not all angels ministering spirits…” (Heb. 1:14), a person himself “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but prove the spirits, whether they are of God; because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 Jn. 4:1). It can also be used to describe one’s attitude “spirit of fear” (2 Tim. 1:7), “meek and submissive spirit” (1 Pet. 3:4), “spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1). Most confusing of all is that in some contexts “spirit” refers the inner person “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.” (2 Cor. 4:16) — in other words as a synonym for “soul.”
Humankind was created in the image of God, so it should be no surprise to find that just as God is a triune being (Father, Son, Spirit), so are we (spirit, soul, body). Paul mentions these three aspects of our being in his letter to the Thessalonians,
“Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul, and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thess. 5:23).
What is important for us to understand is not so much the lexicons and idioms of Hebrew and Greek, but the fact that we are eternal and God will bring us safely to Himself as we turn our souls toward Him. “For the word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart” (Heb.4:12). One day we shall be like Christ, transformed by God: “And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.” (1 Cor. 15:45).
We do not need to master the inner structures of the dichotomy of mankind. We need only collapse before Him, and acknowledge Him as our Lord and God. When we do, He will see our souls safely home to Himself.
Got a question? Use the Contact page and send It to me. We’ll search the Word for God’s answer.