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Some Things We Should Know About the Meaning of the Words "Spirit" and "Soul," Part 2

by Karl Kemp  
4/20/2012 / Bible Studies

We will continue where we stopped in Part 1.

ROMANS 8:10 is another verse that we should discuss. For one thing, this verse (using the translation of the NASB) speaks of our spirit being alive (having life). I agree, of course, that the spirit of born-again Christians is alive, but I don't believe that is what the apostle was saying here. He was making a much more important point. I discussed this verse (in its context with the surrounding verses) in some detail in my book, "Holiness and Victory Over Sin" and in other writings, but I'll limit the discussion here to the words "yet the spirit is alive" of Rom. 8:10. I'm confident that the King James Version and the New King James Version translate the Greek in the sense that Paul (and the One who sent him) intended: "but the Spirit is life," where the word Spirit refers to the Holy Spirit.

Born-again Christians have life, including in our spirits, by the indwelling Spirit of life (the Holy Spirit). There is no source of life (spiritual life or physical life) but God (the triune God). In Rom. 8:2, for example, Paul speaks of the "Spirit of life" who "has set [us] free from the law [or, governing principle] of sin and of death." Before the Spirit of life came to dwell in us through the Lord Jesus and His atoning death, we were spiritually dead, and we were slaves of sin; we were separated from God and without the Spirit of life, righteousness, and holiness. In Rom. 5:21, the apostle spoke of the fact that after the rebellion of Adam "sin reigned in death"; that is, sin reigned over all of Adam's descendants, since they were spiritually dead (meaning that they did not have the indwelling Spirit of life). In the verse preceding Rom. 8:10 (8:9), Paul has just mentioned that "the Spirit of God dwells in [us] now." And in Rom. 8:11 the apostle goes on to speak of the fact that God will give life to our mortal bodies at the end of this age "through His Spirit who dwells in [us]." After we are glorified, we will have glorified bodies, bodies designed for us to live in the dimension of heaven, not mortal bodies that will die physically if Jesus doesn't come first.

We (born again Christians) have life now because we have been redeemed out of the kingdom of sin, spiritual death, the devil, and darkness through the atoning death of the Lamb of God and by the indwelling Spirit of life, righteousness, and holiness. We maintain this life by staying faithful to the new covenant, which includes the call for us to walk by the Holy Spirit of life, righteousness, and holiness on a continuous basis, by grace through faith. (See Gal. 5:16, for example; cf. Gal. 5:24). As we saw above in 2 Cor. 7:1, the spirits of born again Christians can be defiled. We are dependent on God and His grace, which includes all the work of the indwelling Holy Spirit of life, righteousness, and holiness. Apart from the indwelling Spirit of life, there is no spiritual life for us. Apart from the indwelling Spirit of righteousness and holiness, there is no enablement for us to walk in the righteousness and holiness of God, with the victory over sin. The apostle Paul repeatedly speaks of these things throughout his epistle to the Romans (and in his other epistles), as do the other writers of the New Testament.

Let's discuss 1 THESSALONIANS 5:23, which is another very important verse that relates to the topic of this article. "Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be preserved [be kept] complete, without blame at the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ."

A little background information will help us understand this super-important verse. The Christian church at Thessalonica had been recently founded by the apostle Paul "amid much opposition" (1 Thess. 2:2). He even found it necessary to leave Thessalonica (on the occasion of his first visit there) before he wanted to. (See Acts 17:1-16; 1 Thess. 1:6; 2:14-18; 3:1-13.) In 1 Thessalonians Paul mentioned some of his concerns regarding the state of the newly founded church at Thessalonica, which he had just learned about from Timothy, who had just returned to Paul after visiting Thessalonica (see 1 Thess. 3:1-9 [espec. Verse 6]; 3:10-13; 4:1-12; 5:14, 19-22).

With this background information, 1 Thess. 5:23 falls into place. The apostle prays that God will SANCTIFY ENTIRELY these recently converted Christians and then preserve [KEEP] THEM IN THIS ABIDING STATE OF HOLINESS, so that they will be WITHOUT BLAME AT THE COMING OF THE LORD JESUS CHRIST. Paul prays that God will do all that is necessary to bring about the full sanctification of the church at Thessalonica. He was not thinking of a lifetime of growth in holiness, but of a transformation to an abiding state of holiness very soon, as soon as possible. We should continue to grow (grow in knowledge; grow more like the Lord Jesus; etc.) throughout our lives in Christ, but in the ideal case we will not be growing out of sin, because we will be living in an abiding state of holiness, with the victory over all sin. It must be understood that we must cooperate with God's sanctifying grace by faith, in accordance with the terms of the new covenant spelled out in the New Testament, or we will not be sanctified (cf., e.g., Rom. 6:1-23; 8:12-14; 13:11-14; 2 Cor. 7:1; Gal. 5:16-25; and Eph. 4:17-5:14).

For God to send the apostle Paul to Thessalonica was one way that He could substantially meet the need of this church. See 1 Thess. 3:1-10. The apostle wanted the Thessalonian Christians (and all Christians) to live their entire Christian lives WITHOUT BLAME before God (cf., e.g., Phil. 2:15, 16). Living in this state, they would always be fully ready for the return of the Lord Jesus Christ, and they would be WITHOUT BLAME on the day of judgment. The Lord Jesus taught us that one reason we must always stay ready for His return is that we don't know when He will return (cf., e.g., Matt. 24:42-51).

1 Thessalonians 3:10-13, which is an important cross-reference for 1 Thess. 5:23, is discussed on pages 183-185 of my book, "Holiness and Victory Over Sin"; 1 Thess. 4:1-8, which is one of the many passages which show that we should be living in (we have the privilege to live in) an abiding state of holiness now, is discussed on pages 180, 181; and 1 Thess. 5:23 on pages 178, 179. In 1 Thess. 5:23 the apostle Paul speaks of our SPIRIT and SOUL and BODY being sanctified entirely and then kept in that state, so that we will be without blame when we stand before God when Christ returns. In 1 Thess. 3:13 Paul simplifies the picture and speaks of our heart (instead of our spirit and soul and body) being established without blame in holiness before God when Christ returns, but there is no substantial difference in meaning. Paul's readers would have understood that our bodies and everything associated with our lives on earth must be sanctified too (cf., e.g., Rom. 12:1, 2).

Regarding the words "spirit and soul and body," I believe it is clear (based on verses like Matt. 10:28; 16:26; Acts 2:27; 1 Cor. 7:34; 2 Cor. 7:1; and Rev. 6:9-11; 20:4) that the apostle Paul could have said "spirit and body" or "soul and body" and adequately communicated what he wanted to say. It was highly unusual for Paul to use the words "spirit and soul" together like this; we don't find these words used together anywhere else in the New Testament, with the exception of Heb. 4:12, which we discussed. By using the words "spirit and soul and body," he more forcefully communicated the idea that every part of our being must be sanctified. Consider Mark 12:30 (cf. Deut. 6:5), "And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength." It is clear that we are being exhorted here to love God with every part of our being. You would not want to say that the "heart," "soul," and "mind" are three different parts of our being, and notice that the word spirit isn't even mentioned here.

As I mentioned, the fact that the words spirit and soul are very often used with no substantial difference in meaning does not mean that the words are fully equivalent in meaning. We can undoubtedly say that the word SPIRIT is more appropriate than the word soul, for example, when we think of a Christian walking by the Holy SPIRIT, or speaking with tongues by his SPIRIT (see 1 Cor. 14:2 ["in his SPIRIT he speaks mysteries"], 1 Cor. 14:14 ["For if I pray in a tongue, my SPIRIT prays..."), or being SPIRITUAL BY THE HOLY SPIRIT (see 1 Cor. 2.15; 3:1; 14:37), or of the Holy SPIRIT bearing witness with our SPIRIT that we are children of God (Rom. 8:16). It is significant that the word pneuma is so often used for the Holy Spirit. Out of the 380 uses of pneuma in the New Testament, the NASB translates "Spirit" with a capital "S, referring to the Holy Spirit, 239 times.

The Greek adjective "pneumatikos," which was derived from the noun "pneuma", is typically translated "spiritual" by the NASB. It is used, for example, of spiritual (by the Spirit) gifts; of God's Law, which is spiritual; of our spiritual bodies, which we will have after we are glorified; of the spiritual person, who is led by the Spirit; and the spiritual forces of evil arrayed against us. The Greek adjective "psuchikos," which was derived from "psuche," is translated "natural" 5 times and "worldly-minded" one time by the NASB. In 1 Cor. 2:14 it is used of the "natural" (unspiritual) man, who does not walk by the Holy Spirit. The NIV translates, "The man without the Spirit." However we translate psuchikos in 1 Cor. 2:14, I believe the apostle Paul was including many of the Christians at Corinth in that category who, even though they had been born of the Spirit, were not walking by the Spirit on a consistent basis. See 1 Cor. 3:1-4. Paul made it very clear throughout this epistle, and other epistles, that they were going to have to repent of that unacceptable condition. The NASB translates this adjective "worldly-minded" in Jude 1:24, and the words that follow in that verse are "devoid of [Literally, "not having"] the Spirit." Also, as I mentioned, when psuche is translated life/lives (which it is 43 times in the New Testament) it typically refers to life in this world, not spiritual (by the Spirit) life.

JAMES 1:21. This verse is a good example of how a popular (but wrong) idea about the meaning of the word soul (which is tied to the wrong ideas about soul and spirit) can result in a wrong interpretation of a very important verse. "Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls." I'll also quote verse 22. "But [or, better, "And"] prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves."

James is exhorting his readers to once-for-all and completely put off anything and everything that is sinful and inappropriate for Christians and to walk in line with God's Word, His Word of the gospel of the new covenant that informs us, for one thing, what He has provided for us (by His saving grace in Christ Jesus) and what He requires of us. This is the ideal that we have been called to, and God's grace is sufficient. We are called to (we have the privilege to) put off everything that is sinful and to walk in the righteousness and holiness of God through the atoning death of the Lamb of God and by the indwelling all-powerful Spirit of holiness and righteousness through faith. This is what it means to be "doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves" of James 1:22. They "delude themselves" with the thought that they can have authentic Christianity without being doers of God's Word. It is important to see that James warns his readers in these verses that if they don't take his exhortation seriously, it will (in the worst-case scenario) cost them their salvation. On God's word, see James 1:18 which speaks of God's "word of truth."

On putting off everything that is sinful and defiling and putting on the righteousness and holiness of God once-for-all and completely, see, for example, Eph. 4:22-5:1; Col. 3:1-11; Rom. 13:11-14; and there are very many more such passages throughout the New Testament. See my book, "Holiness and Victory Over Sin."

The words "to save your souls" mean to not lose your souls to spiritual/eternal death, the second death of Rev. 20:14, 15. JAMES 5:19, 20 is an important cross-reference, "My brethren, if any among you strays from the truth [the truth of God's word, which includes the need for Christians to walk in the righteousness and holiness of God by His grace (see Eph. 4:24)] and one turns him back [influences him to repent through intercessory prayer, speaking with him, etc.], (20) let him know that he who turns a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul [the sinner's soul] from death [spiritual death, eternal death] and will cover a multitude of sins." The sins he has committed will be covered (forgiven), and we can also think of the multitude of sins that he will not go on to commit. Furthermore, we can think of the great multitude of sins of others that would have resulted because of his sins if he had not repented. Sin spreads like cancer, only it is much more destructive than cancer, being able to destroy the spirit/soul of man.

Some other passages that speak of saving your soul and/or losing your soul to spiritual/eternal death are: Matt. 10:28; 16:24-27; Mark 8:34-38; Heb. 10:35-39; 1 Pet. 1:9; cf. Luke 12:20; Acts 3:23; Rom. 2:9. Also see 1 Cor. 5:5, which speaks of the spirit being saved (through repentance), instead of being lost. Compare James 2:14; 4:12 on being saved, or lost.

I'm sorry to say that I have often heard a different interpretation of James 1:21, an interpretation based on a popular (but wrong) understanding of the meaning of the word soul. They say that James did not say anything about saving or losing your soul here (which is a very important topic to say the least): He was just telling them that they need to study and meditate on God's word which will gradually renew their minds. This interpretation is based on their view that that the soul, which is distinct from the spirit, equals the mind, will, and emotions.

It is true, of course, that we need to continue to study God's Word, but James was giving a powerful exhortation here, warning his readers that they were in a very real danger of losing their souls. They needed to "prove [themselves to be] doers of the [God's] word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves" (James 1:22). God needs to get very blunt with some Christians to try to wake them up to see the seriousness of their need to repent and make God, His Word, and His righteousness and holiness top priority. There is no satisfactory alternative! We must be true believers! "Pursue peace with all men, and the sanctification [holiness] without which no one will see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14).

Although the interpretation that says that James was only exhorting his readers to get their minds renewed is widespread on a popular level (which is quite popular in some Christian circles in our day), I wouldn't expect many scholars to make this error. I looked at some thirty-five commentaries on James 1:21, and I didn't find even one commentator who misinterpreted what it means to save your soul.

May God's will be fully accomplished through this article and His people be blessed!

Copyright by Karl Kemp Karl Kemp worked as an engineer in the space field throughout the 60s. He became a born-again Christian in 1964. He received an MA in Biblical Studies in 1972. He has been a Bible teacher for 45 years. See the website for more info on his books, papers, etc.

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