A brief devotional article is unrealistic to discuss the raging theological debates and difficulties regarding the difference between spirit and soul. However, given the crucial importance of this subject to our daily Christian living, I will list the significant differences between the spirit and soul concisely, with minimal explanations as needed.
If you have not yet done so, please read the prior two Deshen Daily devotionals, “What is the Soul?” and “What is the Spirit,” before continuing because I will assume your knowledge of the things I discussed in those devotionals.
There are a few foundational truths that should be well understood, as I discussed previously. First, the term soul has various meanings, one of which is spirit. So scriptures use the terms spirit and soul synonymously in many contexts. The key, therefore, is to recognize the context in which the scriptures make a difference between spirit and soul: human physical existence in the body, in which the spirit is the life or vital force and the soul is the person.
Let me use Gen. 2:7 ( creation) and Psalms 146:5 (death) to explain the difference between the spirit and the soul.While living in the body, the spirit is the life( breath of life), while the soul is the person who comes alive on the earth
Spirit and Soul at Creation
And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Genesis 2:7 KJV)
Here, God breathed the spirit He had created into the body of Adam, which He had also created. When the spirit entered the body, Adam became a living soul. Adam became a conscious being, aware of self, with the three inner capacities characteristic of God’s person—thoughts, emotions, and will; but also Adam, as a person, had a spirit and a body. The spirit is the life-breath, which is entirely pneumatic in existence(spirit). The soul is the person who is natural, living here on the earth.
The Earth is Not for Spirits
Think of it this way. Spirits, whether divine, angelic, or human, cannot live on earth as spirits. God did not create the earth for spirits to live on. For spirits to live on earth, they have to take up a “natural” dimension. The scripture does not explicitly state this, but it is my way to explain this complex concept to you: think of the soul as the spirit stepping into the realm of the natural and so taking on a natural dimension.
So the soul is the human being in the natural world. The spirit is of the spirit dimension, while the soul is natural. That is why the first Adam is called a natural man, a living soul.
“It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.” (1 Corinthians 15:44–45 ESV)
This explains why the spirit and the soul have the same capacities of thought, emotions, and will because the difference between them, in the context in which the Bible makes a difference, is not in the abilities that one has, which the other does not.
A Theological Difficulty
If you study this subject in the Systematic Theology by Dr. Norman Geisler or that by Dr. Wayne Grudem (both of which I recommend you read if possible), one reason they gave to support the view that there is no difference between the spirit and the soul is that there is nothing the spirit can do which the soul cannot do.
However, the soul and the spirit do not differ in their capacities. Scripture presents both as having thoughts, emotions, and will. The difference is that one is spiritual, and the other is natural, as I have attempted to explain to you above! The spirit is the life-breath of the human being living on the earth, the vital spiritual force, while the soul is the person who is aware of themselves and can think, feel, or will and has a spirit as life and the body as the instrument to exist and function on earth.
A Crucial Practical Truth
If you grasp what I have written above, you will understand this essential practical truth: the soul does not have a separate existence and function apart from the body or spirit while we are alive here on earth. I will repeat the sentence you just read a million times if that will drive home the point. Human beings function as a single unified entity while on earth and not in parts. Though the spirit is distinct from the soul and the body while we live on earth, it exists and functions in the soul and body.
For example, you do not have two minds, one of the spirit and the other of the soul. This idea, probably the most devastating consequence of an inaccurate understanding of the three parts of man, is responsible for all sorts of problems, especially amongst us, charismatics and Pentecostals. One such classic error is the common notion that man is a spirit that has a soul and merely lives in a body; I cherished this revelation all my life as a Christian until I began studying the scriptures extensively on the subject.
Spirit and Soul at Death
Besides the creation story, man’s death helps us understand the difference between the spirit and the soul. The Psalmist says:
His breath goeth forth; he returneth to his earth; In that very day his thoughts perish (Psalm 146:4 KJV)
Though not as straightforward as Genesis 2:7, it helps explain the point I made above. Let us review three primary phrases from this verse:
1. “His breath goeth forth.”
That is the spirit. Note how the spirit is presented as the life breath separate from the man that “returns to the ground.” The breath is the spirit that returns to God; once outside of the body, it exists as an independent personal entity, just as the angels. However, this spirit is not a complete human being: the creature that God calls man is not a spirit without a body like the angels. In fact, scripture calls a disembodied human spirit naked or unclothed.
“if indeed by putting it on, we may not be found naked. For a while, we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.” (2 Corinthians 5:3–4 ESV)
The disembodied self-conscious spirit is a temporary phase of our existence. God created humans to live on earth as composite beings with a spirit, soul, and body. We will always have a body—for all eternity. In fact, the most characteristic feature of human beings is not the spirit but the body. If the “real man” was the spirit and the body is only a house we live in, God would have rescued us from the body as salvation and never brought us back again into a body. On the contrary, God has prepared a fantastic body, a different kind, yet still a body for us. Yes, we will always remain human beings with the spirit and body as one even after Jesus comes to “take us to heaven.”
2. “He returneth to his earth.”
What returns to the earth? The body. Notice scripture calls the body “he,” meaning the man. This idea is in perfect accord with Genesis 2:7, which says God formed man (the body) from the dust of the ground and calls the body man. Though scripture clearly calls the body a house, our body is not just some attachment to us. It is us. The body is as human as the spirit is.
3. “In that very day, his thoughts perish.”
The Hebrew word translated thoughts ( eston) means plans. Those plans are carefully ordered thoughts. His thoughts, the plans, ideas the man has, perish. This is what physical death is. When we die physically, the spirit departs and continues to exist in that temporary unclothed phase that theologians call the intermediary state.
So can we conclude then since the spirit continues to live, the human beings do not die? Not quite true. Physical death is a reality everywhere in scripture, as shown Psalms 146:4. The man dies, and his thoughts perish. The man who dies is the natural person, with natural thoughts, emotions, and will, existing on the earth in a body. That natural person is the soul that dies physically when the life-breath (spirit) departs, and the lifeless body decays.
Only Spirit Leaves the Body at Death
Finally, in discussing death, notice that only one disembodied immaterial entity departs from the body at physical death. You will never find in scripture where the spirit leaves the body as a conscious entity, and the soul also leaves the body as a second conscious entity while the body decays and return to earth. At death, only one entity leaves the human body—the spirit, or you can also call it the soul in this context.
This idea loops back to Genesis 2:7; as I discussed above, God created only two parts of our nature: the spirit and the body. When they unite, the man, the natural man, becomes a living soul, a living being here on earth. When the spirit separates, the natural man ceases to exist here on earth; his lifeless body decays because it is just dust, but his spirit lives on independently in an “unclothed” or self-conscious naked state.
As I mentioned above, this is only a brief discussion on this subject, without considering the other points of view. Whatever the case, I highly recommend that every single believer, especially ministers, personally study this subject. It is one of the most practically important subjects for our Christian lives and walking with the Holy Spirit.