Paul prays in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 that God would “sanctify” his readers “completely,” including their “whole spirit and soul and body.” Does this verse indicate that man consists of three separate components—spirit, soul, and body? And if so, what is the spirit in distinction from the soul?
Paul uses these terms to stress the wholeness of sanctification, one that reaches every part of man. Paul prays, first, that God would sanctify all of them “completely” and, second, that the “whole” of each part (spirit, soul, and body) would “be kept blameless.” Wholeness is his point, not whether or not the spirit is distinct from the soul. If nothing else, we at least see here that man is one, a unity of body, soul, and spirit.
We could approach Hebrews 4:12 similarly. The author’s intent is not to teach us that soul and spirit can indeed be divided from one another but that the Word acts to judge and expose whether or not the readers were truly committed to God, searching their inmost parts.
The poetic parallelism in the words of Mary brings out this same point. Her soul magnified the Lord, just as her spirit rejoiced in God her Savior (Luke 1:46–47). The immaterial part of her person did not have multiple entities engaging in similar activities. Her one being glorified God for His favor.
It is more difficult to explain 1 Corinthians 15:44 in which Paul calls our present, earthly bodies “natural” or “soulish” and our future, heavenly bodies “spiritual.” The terms “natural” and “spiritual” distinguish the earthly body from the heavenly, not the soul from the spirit. By calling our earthly bodies “natural,” Paul emphasizes that they are perishable and mortal (1 Cor 15:53). By calling our heavenly bodies “spiritual,” Paul emphasizes that they are imperishable and immortal (1 Corinthians 15:53).
In another sense, the Bible speaks of man as two. At creation, God created man’s body and breathed life into him, making him a living soul (Genesis 2:7). At death, man’s spirit and soul leave the body (Genesis 35:18; Psalm 31:5), and the dead, separated from their bodies, may be called either souls or spirits (Hebrews 12:23; Revelation 6:9). After death, man continues in some sort of embodied state (e.g., 1 Samuel 28:14; Matthew 17:3) until the body is glorified at the resurrection (Philippians 3:20–21). So, in the sense that man is two, he is made up of something material and something immaterial. However we understand the soul in distinction from the spirit (if it necessary or possible to do so), the immaterial part of man reunites with his body at the resurrection (2 Corinthians 5:1–5).
Whether or not man is three is difficult to say, the difficulty lying in whether or not we can distinguish the spirit from the soul. As seen above, it is easier to describe man as being a unity of two (material and immaterial, body and spirit/soul) rather than three (body, spirit, and soul).
For more articles by Pastor Huffstutler, go to davidhuffstutler.com.