Job And The Afterlife  Sheol-Part Five The Differences Between “Soul” And “Spirit” 

By: Mark Tabata (Evangelist)

(Note: Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are from the New King James Version of the Bible)

Quotation For Consideration

“Some by the soul understand the natural and unregenerate part in man, and by the spirit the renewed and regenerate part, which though sometimes are not so easily distinguished by men, yet they are by Christ; others think the soul designs the inferior faculties, the affections; and the spirit the superior ones, the mind and understanding; but the apostle’s meaning seems to be this, that whereas the soul and spirit are invisible, and the joints and marrow are covered and hid; so sharp and quick sighted, and so penetrating is the divine Word, that it reaches the most secret and hidden things of men: and this sense is confirmed by what follows,”. (John Gill, Commentary On Hebrews, E-Sword version)


Sometimes in the Bible, “soul” and “spirit” are used interchangeably to refer to the spiritual, non-physical “essence.” For example:

Job 7:11-Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.

Isaiah 26:9-With my soul I have desired You in the night, Yes, by my spirit within me I will seek You early; For when Your judgments are in the earth, The inhabitants of the world will learn righteousness.

However, there are times when the Bible makes a distinction between “soul” and “spirit.”

In this study, we will notice three passages from the New Testament where this distinction is made.

The Spirit, Soul, And Body

In Paul’s first letter to the church of Thessalonica, he prays for them with the following words:

1 Thessalonians 5:23-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.

Paul here makes a clear distinction between the body, the soul, and the spirit.

Please notice two things from this passage.

First, the three-fold division that Paul mentions is clearly used to designate the whole person. In other words, Paul wants us to understand that his prayer is that the whole person will be sanctified.

“Paul is not at this point giving a theoretical description of the nature of the human constitution, but engaging in prayer. We can no more take his words here to mean that our nature is threefold than we can take some of his words elsewhere to indicate that we are twofold (body and spirit, 1 Cor. 7:34), or those of Jesus in Mark 12:30 to show that we are fourfold (heart, soul, mind, and strength). Paul simply uses this graphic form by way of insisting that the whole person, and not some part only, is involved.” (Leon Morris, The First And Second Epistles To The Thessalonians, 2209 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans’ Publishing Company)

Second, Paul’s prayer is especially worthy of consideration. He prays that God will “sanctify” the Christians.

The word “sanctify” means “to set apart,” and “to make holy.” There is a sense in which we are sanctified when we are baptized into Christ (1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Ephesians 5:26), but there is also a sense in which we are “continually” sanctified as we grow as Christians (1 John 1:7).

John Piper provides an excellent description of this:

“The English word sanctify or sanctification is built on the Latin word sanctus , which means “holy.” In English, we don’t turn the adjective holy into a verb. The world holify does not exist. But in the Greek language of the New Testament, the adjective holy ( hagios ) can be made into a verb ( hagiazō ), which means “to make holy” or to “treat as holy.” In Greek, that same adjective for holy ( hagios ) can be made into three different nouns ( hagiosmos , hagiōsunē , hagiotēs ), which sometimes mean “the condition of being holy” (“holiness”) or “the process of becoming holy”—which would be “holification” if such a word existed in English, but since it doesn’t, we use “sanctification.” Here’s the crucial point: any time you read in the New Testament any form of the word “sanctify,” you know you are reading about holiness . So a book like this on sanctification is a book on being or becoming holy. And the reason I use the terms “being” or “becoming” holy is that the New Testament refers to our holiness in both of those senses—a condition of being holy and a process of becoming holy….The clearest place to see both of these in one chapter is Hebrews 10. Hebrews 10:10 says, “By [God’s] will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” So there is a sense in which all those who believe in Jesus “have been sanctified.” They are holy. And then four verses later (v. 14) we read, “By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified .” So there is a sense in which Christians are both perfected already (are perfectly holy) and are being sanctified (being made holy). Both the condition of being holy and the process of becoming holy are prominent in the New Testament. Neither is minimized. The most obvious way to see the prominence of the Christian condition or state of holiness is to see that Paul calls Christians “saints” forty times in his thirteen letters. Paul’s favorite name for Christians is saints . The New Testament word behind the English “saint” is simply the adjective for “holy” turned into a noun—“holy ones” ( hagioi ). You can see the connection between the condition of being sanctified and the name “saints” in 1 Corinthians 1:2: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified ( hēgiasmenois ) in Christ Jesus, called to be saints ( klētois hagiois ).” So the picture is that God calls us, and unites us by faith to Jesus, so that “in Christ Jesus,” we are holy, sanctified, and the name that we get, therefore, is “saints” or “holy ones.”…But the process of becoming holy (sanctification) is also prominent in the New Testament. We saw Hebrews 10:14, “By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified .” We see it in 2 Corinthians 7:1: “Let us cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God.” So if we are bringing holiness to completion, there is a process of becoming fully holy. We are not there yet. Or 1 Thessalonians 5:23: “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely .” This prayer shows that our becoming holy is not yet complete. So Paul asks God to complete it. Or Hebrews 12:10: “[Our earthly fathers] disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but [God] disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness .” So a fuller holiness is coming through God’s discipline. The upshot of all this so far is that whenever the New Testament talks about sanctification, it is talking about holiness. And when it is talking about our holiness, it is either talking about the condition of our being holy (because we are in Christ Jesus—and thus saints), or it is talking about the process of our becoming holy through God’s work in our lives.” (John Piper & David Mathis, Acting The Miracle: God’s Work And Ours In The Mystery Of Sanctification, 333-372 (Kindle Edition); Wheaton, Illinois; Crossway)

Notice that the “soul” and “spirit” are both in need of sanctification by God.

The Division Of Soul And Spirit

In Hebrews, we learn some other important lessons about the distinction between soul and spirit.

Hebrews 4:12-For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

Notice two things with me from this text.
First, Paul’s entire point in mentioning “soul” and “spirit” here is to illustrate how the Word of God can distinguish between even the most minute differences. “Soul” and “spirit” are like “joints” and “marrow.”

In other words, they are very closely related together.

“The words which follow-“as it pierces, it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow”-are to be understood as a “rhetorical accumulation of terms to express the whole mental nature of man on all its sides”; so A. B. Davidson, son, who further points out that since “the idea of dividing the soul and spirit suggests the division of a body into its members, hence joints and marrow are attributed to them, expressing the subtle articulations of the spiritual being and the innermost nature and substance of it.”52 It would indeed be precarious to draw any conclusions from these words about our author’s psychology, nor is it necessary to understand them in the sense of the Pauline distinction between soul and spirit.53 That the word of God probes the inmost recesses of our spiritual being and brings the subconscious motives to light is what is meant; we may compare Paul’s language about the coming day when the Lord “will both bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and make manifest the counsels of the hearts” (1 Cor. 4:5).” (F.F. Bruce, The Epistle To The Hebrews: New International Commentary On The New Testament, 1362-1373 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)

Second, the passage is illustrating how God’s Word reaches even to the things which we consider the most secretive and the most hidden.

This is illustrated in verse 13.

Hebrews 4:12-13-12 For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

13 And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.

So, the passage teaches us that the soul and the spirit are closely related together.

Furthermore, that they are “hidden” from sight.

The Natural Man Versus The Spiritual Man

A third passage which sheds some light on the differences between the soul and the spirit is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Notice what he says:

1 Corinthians 2:14-14 But the natural (psuchikos) man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually (pneumatikōs) discerned.

Paul shows a distinction between those individuals who are focused on the “soul” (psuchikos) and those who are focused on the “spirit” (pneumatikos).

From studying this passage, we learn some of the differences between the “soul” and the “spirit.”

Look at the words “psuchikos” and “pneumatikos.”

The NKJV translates these as “natural” and “spiritual.” The root words are “soul” and “spirit.”

Furthermore, in chapter 3, Paul continues the same discussion. But instead of “psuchikos,” he uses the word “carnal” (sarkikos).

Yet what did the Apostle mean by these words?

In order to answer that, let’s notice the context.

Paul had been writing to the church at Corinth regarding the importance of the Gospel message. Many of the Gentiles believed that the preaching of the Cross of Jesus was foolishness.

Keeping in mind that there were also false apostles who were leading the church at Corinth astray (2 Corinthians 11:13-15), the Apostle to the Gentiles laid down his Divine credentials.

In chapters 1 and 2, Paul discussed the Word of God which had been given to the Apostles (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:13). The Word could not be understood, however, by those who were “natural.”

He used the same word later in 1 Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 15:44-It is sown a natural (psuchikos) body, it is raised a spiritual (pneumatikos) body. There is a natural (psuchikos) body, and there is a spiritual (pneumatikos) body.

Notice the contrast here, between “natural” and “spiritual.” The same contrast exists in chapters two and three.

Some believe that the distinction between “natural’ and “spiritual” is “physical” versus “non-physical.”

However, that is not the idea at all. Our resurrected bodies will be like Jesus’ was. His body was changed when He was resurrected, and our bodies will be like His (1 Corinthians 15:20-50).

Yet Jesus’ resurrected boy was physical (Luke 24:37-43; Matthew 28:9; John 20:25-20). Therefore, our resurrected bodies will be physical, like Christ’s.

Yet didn’t Paul say that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Corinthians 15:50)?

Yes, he did.

But the phrase “flesh and blood” was a Jewish figure of speech that meant bodies which are subject to decay.

“The solemn pronouncement “But this I say,” along with the address “brothers,” introduces the fundamental principle that the perishable body cannot inherit the imperishable kingdom. The phrase “flesh and blood” refers to the earthly human body, which is subject to sin and death. 283 Verse 50 exhibits a parallelism as follows: flesh and blood will not inherit the kingdom of God the perishable will not inherit the imperishable…More likely, the parallelism is synonymous, meaning that “flesh and blood” refers to the perishable body. 285 Paul simply repeats the analogy of the seed in 15:42: “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable.” 286”. (Mark Taylor, 1 Corinthians: The New American Commentary-An Exegetical And Theological Exposition Of Holy Scripture, 410-411 (Kindle Edition); Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group)

In a mock debate between the Apostle Paul and the “prophet” Muhammad, this subject is examined. Looking at the original Greek of the New Testament, we find the following:

“Paul: You misunderstand what I meant by the term natural. The New Revised Standard Version and its predecessor the Revised Standard Version are the only translations to use the word physical. Virtually every other translation renders the word natural.[ 12] Those who translate the word as physical are mistaken, and it is easy to demonstrate this. The Greek word we are talking about is psychikos.[ 13] Would you like to know how many times in the Bible, including the intertestamental writings, this word means physical or material, as the New Revised Standard Version suggests? Zero! It is never used that way.[ 14] The Greek word we are talking about for spiritual is pneumatikos.[ 15] Would you like to know how many times this word means immaterial as the New Revised Standard Version suggests? Zero![ 16] To see what I meant by these words, you only need to look a few chapters earlier in my same first letter to the Corinthian church…I’m saying here that the natural man who is controlled by his fleshly and sinful desires does not accept the truths of God because they can only be understood by those who are controlled by desires that are centered on the true God—in other words, spiritual people. Thus, in chapter 15, verse 44, I’m saying that our bodies are buried with all of their fleshly and sinful appetites. But they are raised with only holy appetites that are focused on God. There is no reason whatsoever for translating what I wrote to mean that we are buried with physical bodies but will be raised with immaterial ones, leaving the old body in the ground.” (Michael R. Licona, Paul Meets Muhammad: A Christian-Muslim Debate On The resurrection, 1590-1602 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)

So the “natural” man has reference to the part of man whose primary focus is on the fallen nature, and the things which would promise to satisfy sinful desires.

Furthermore, we noticed that In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul substitutes the word “carnal” for “natural” (1 Corinthians 3:1-3).

As such, these words-natural (psuchikos), carnal (sarkikos), and flesh (sarx)-are often used interchangeably in the New Testament.

In the Book of Romans, we read:

Romans 8:5-8-5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.

6 For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.

7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be.

8 So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

With these things in mind, we see that the “soul” may sometimes refer to the part of man which focuses on things which are not in harmony with God’s Word.

It is the part of fallen humanity which seeks out things which are opposed to God.

In contrast, the ‘spirit’ would be that part of humanity which seeks the higher things of God. Another author has pointed out:

“Paul’s use of the three terms “spirit, soul and body” raises the question of his anthropology.8 “Body” obviously describes the physical being of a person. “Soul” (psych) is the life force that all living things (including animals) possess and that distinguishes them from the inanimate or the dead. The word is used of life itself, as the seat of internal thoughts, desires, and emotions, or of that aspect of life that survives physical death.9 “Spirit” (pneuma) refers to the “breath” characteristic of life and thus also to the immaterial aspect of life. It is roughly synonymous with “soul,” and like soul it sometimes is paired with “flesh” or “body” to sum up the entirety of a living being. In one Pauline context, however, adjectives related to the nouns “spirit” and “soul” do seem to draw a distinction between the two concepts (1 Cor 2:14–15). The “spiritual” (pneumatikos) person is one enabled to commune with the divine. The “natural” (psuchikos) person lives apart from the knowledge and power of God (cf. 1 Cor 15:42–46).10 The key distinction here is relational, not ontological. Paul was not describing the human person as a three-part conglomerate but as a being with material and nonmaterial existence who may or may not be spiritually enlivened in relation to God. The three terms used in v. 23, “spirit, soul and body,” occur in a context stressing wholeness. Paul was not emphasizing the threefold nature of humanity but the deliverance of the “whole” (holoklron) person. The adjective “whole” is first in the clause. The term is qualitative, indicating something that has integrity, is intact, complete, and undamaged.” (D. Michael Martin, 1, 2 Thessalonians: The New American Commentary-An Exegetical And Theological Exposition Of Holy Scripture, 4530-4545 (Kindle Edition); Nashville, TN; B&H Publishing Group)

We also see from this one of the blessings of our resurrection bodies.

When Paul discusses how our bodies will not be “natural” but “spiritual,” he is teaching us that the fallen aspects of our nature which are attracted to wickedness and evil will be removed.

In many ways, we will be as Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden before the Fall.


While the words “soul” and “spirit” may be used interchangeably throughout Scripture, they are not identical.

From our studies, we learn the following:

The words “body, soul, and spirit” as used in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 are used to make reference to the whole person.

We learn that all three elements of man-body, soul, and spirit-are in need of continual sanctification by God.

The “soul” and “spirit” are closely joined together, like “joints” and “marrow.”

The “soul” and “spirit” are usually invisible to the naked eye.

The “soul” is sometimes used to have reference to the part of man which is unregenerate and fallen, and which seeks that which is evil.

The “spirit” often refers to that part of man which seeks the things of God.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

Study Questions

List two passages where “soul” and “spirit” are used interchangeably. _____________________________________________________________

What does the word “sanctify” mean? _______________

What are some passages which show that “sanctification” takes place at baptism? ______________________________

What are some passages which show that “sanctification” is an on-going process? ______________________________________________

What does the phrase “flesh and blood” in 1 Corinthians 15:50 mean? _____________________________________________________________________________

What are some evidences that Jesus’ resurrected body was physical? _____________________________________________________________________________________________

In 1 Corinthians 2, what are some differences between “soul” and “spirit?”

For Prayer Partners

1. Consider Hebrews 4:12-13. In what ways can we say that the Word of God is living and powerful? Consult Psalm 19:1-7 and Isaiah 55:8-11 in your answer.

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