What is the difference between soul and spirit?

This question is a difficult one for several reasons. It is not easy to explain the differences briefly, as we need to do here. Then mankind does not have a very fixed concept of the meanings that belong to the words, for although both soul and spirit are very real, they are not material. We cannot offer either one as a visible sam­ple or example of what we are talking about. Moreover, the Bible uses the terms in several ways, and it is not always easy to determine which usages are figurative (as in Acts 2:41, where “souls is used to speak of the whole person) and which are a more limited usage. A part of the problem will be seen by noting that Thayer’s Greek­-English Lexicon gives nearly a full two-column page to the meanings of psuche, soul, and about three and a half two-column pages to pneuma, spirit.


Common usage today does not greatly distinguish between soul and spirit, but uses either term to speak of the part of man that survives the death of the body. Nevertheless, that there is a distinc­tion will be clearly seen in such passages as 1 Thessalonians 5:23, “And may your spirit and soul and body be preserved entire, without blame at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ,” or Hebrews 4:12, “The word of God. . . piercing even to the dividing of soul and spirit. ..” When one reads the lexicons and the theological sum­maries of soul and spirit, he realizes that the distinction is not an easy one to make. The use of psuche, soul, ranges from simply the breath of life, even of the animals, as in Revelation 8:9, all the way to that which does not die with the body, as in Matthew 12:28. An adjectival form is sometimes translated “natural, animal, or sensual” (Note in the quote below that the writer uses “soulish” to indicate passages where this word occurs). Pneuma, spirit, also ranges in use from wind, John 3;8, and breath, 2 Thessalonians 2:8, to its use in the term, Holy Spirit, to speak of God Himself. When a man dies it is the spirit which is specifically declared as that which returns to God (Ecclesiastes 12:7). Jesus committed His spirit to the Father at His death (Luke 23:46; cf. Matthew 27:50).


The following, by William L. Pettingill, in Bible Questions An­swered, strikes me as about the best and clearest summary I have seen.


1. Man has a body. In this he is like all of the creation of God throughout the animal and vegetable world. The brutes have living bodies, and so do the trees and plants.

2. Man has a soul. In this he is unlike the trees and plants, but he is like the lower animals. The soul is the seat of the emotions, the passions, the feelings, the desires, the likes and dislikes, the affections, and the will. All these things we have in common with the beasts.

3. Man has a spirit. In this he is unique among God’s creatures. “The spirit of man is the candle of Jehovah” (Proverbs 20:27), and it is this that is set aglow when man is born again; and then God’s Spirit testifies with man’s spirit that he is a child of God. God cannot be known by the body, nor by the soul, but only by the spirit. And even the human spirit is incapable of finding out anything about God or of knowing God except by revelation of the Spirit of God. “For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him? Even so the things of God knoweth no man, but the Spirit of God. Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is of God; that we might know the things that are freely given to us of God. . . But the soulish (so the Greek) man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he that is spiritual discerneth all things, yet he himself is discerned of no man” (1 Corinthians 2:11-15).

The believer is spiritual only when he is ruled through his own spirit by the Spirit of God. If he is ruled by his body as dominated by his soul, he becomes a slave to his own affections, appetites, emotions, passions, and therefore is a willful, selfish man. The Word of God is extremely careful to distinguish between things of the soul and of the spirit, even judging “the thoughts and intents of the heart” as to whether such thoughts and intents are spiritual or soulish (Heb. 4:12). It declares that any wisdom which is not from above and therefore not from the Spirit of God, is “earthly, soulish, devilish” (Jas. 3:15). It asserts that the false teachers of the end-time are “they who make separations, soulish, having not the Spirit” (Jude 19); and that having not the Spirit, they are “none of his” (Rom. 8:9). And, finally, it gives us the glorious assurance that when we get our resurrection bodies (1 Cor. 15:44) they will be no longer soulish (“natural” is incorrect here also), but spiritual: no longer dominated by selfishness and willfulness, but rather under the full and free control of the Spirit of God


Some good Christians I know talk about “laymen” and “a layman’s viewpoint,” etc. I was under the impression that this tern makes a distinction between God’s people that He does not make. Am I right or wrong?

People very readily adopt the language that is used about them, often without being aware of some of the connotations that may be involved. Religious society about us generally speaks of “laymen,” or “laity,” and also’ uses the contrasting term, “clergy.” Preachers, priests, rabbis, and these who’ have had same kind of ordination to religious service are called “clergy” and all others are “laity.” Because of their training, study, and the authority they may exer­cise, the “clergy” have been considered well-informed in religious matters and the “laity” less well-informed or practically uninformed. “Clergymen” are regarded as the professionals, while “laymen” are regarded as the non-professionals. As a rule, the “clergy” is also regarded as a class of men of higher status than the rest.

Discerning Christians often oppose the use of these terms be­cause they make a class distinction among God’s people that He has not made. God has not put preachers (or their kind) on a pedestal or in a class to themselves. All Christians are servants of God, members of the one Body, one man in Christ Jesus. All Christians-not just preachers-ought to seek to be professional (in the sense of trained, capable, and responsible) in whatever work they do for the Lord. Moreover, the Bible is not n book that is reserved for a select group. These terms (and the concepts behind them) tend to make people think that some things can only be done by the “clergy” and must not be done by the “laity.” They do introduce false distinctions between God’s people and create a status consciousness. I believe that in Christianity the viewpoint is valid that opposes the clergy-laity polarization.

We live in a society that does use the terms, however, and we cannot get entirely away from dealing with such concepts. The application form we fill out may call for a paragraph on whether or not one, is a clergyman; it may seek only a check mark. The gov­ernment adopts classifications that are generally used. We some­times have to accept what is meant and respond accordingly. So accepted is the usage that in non-religious fields the idea has been adopted. The non-professional in many areas is spoken of as a layman. Your doctor may, inform you that the high sounding name given your affliction is “in laymen’s terms-a stomach ache.” We cannot all expect to be professionals in all fields and our non-pro­fessional position needs a term to describe it. Common usage has probably made “layman” as good a term for this as any other, al­though those of us aware of its religious significance may tend to read too much into it. I suspect that when some Christians use this term in a religious setting they are bringing it back from the business and secular world and mean little more than to indicate one who is not fully informed or experienced.