“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 5:23 ESV).
Paul prays in 1 Thess 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?1 And if so, what is the spirit in distinction from the soul?
Paul uses these three 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.” Even Paul’s word order brings this wholeness out. Translated somewhat literally, Paul writes, “Now may the God of peace sanctify you wholly, and the whole of your spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” 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.2
We could approach Heb 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 a similar point. Her soul magnified the Lord, just as her spirit rejoiced in God her Savior (Luke 1:46–47). It is not that the immaterial part of her person had multiple entities engaging in similar activities. Her one being glorified God for His favor.3
It is more difficult to explain how Paul speaks of our earthly and glorified bodies in 1 Cor 15:44. Our present, earthly bodies are “natural” or “soulish,” but our future, heavenly bodies are “spiritual.” By using the terms “natural” and “spiritual,” Paul distinguishes the earthly body from the heavenly body, not the soul from the spirit. By calling our earthly bodies “natural,” Paul emphasizes that they are perishable and mortal (1 Cor 15:53). Likewise, by calling our heavenly bodies “spiritual,” Paul emphasizes that they are imperishable and immortal (1 Cor 15:53).
In another sense, the Bible speaks of man as two, a unity of the material (body) and immaterial (spirit/soul). At creation, God created man’s body and breathed life into him, making him a living soul (Gen 2:7). At death, man’s spirit and soul leave the body (Gen 35:18; Ps 31:5), and the dead, separated from their bodies, may be called either souls or spirits (Hebs 12:23; Rev 6:9). After death, man continues in some sort of embodied state (e.g., 1 Sam 28:14; Matt 17:3) until he is reunited with his earthly body and glorified at the resurrection (Phil 3:20–21; 2 Cor 5:1-5). However we understand the soul in distinction from the spirit (if it is possible or necessary to do so), they together make up the immaterial part of man who God intends to be a unity of material and immaterial forever.4
That man is three is hard to say. As we have seen, Scripture does not neatly separate the spirit from the soul in describing the inner workings of a person, what occurs at death, or how to identify an individual. As seen above, in keeping with the greater tradition of the church, 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).
Whether we divide the unseen part of man or not, disagreement on this matter should not divide Christians from one another as they maintain the unity of the Spirit in the body of Christ.
- For a recent representative of this view, see Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity: The Doctrines of Man, Sin, Christ, and the Holy Spirit (Allen Park, MI: Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2009), 11–23.
- Most use the terminology of monist, dichotomist, or trichotomist to indicate whether man’s nature should be understood as being one or having two or three components. For an overview of each position, see Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 18–24.
- Charles Hodges, Systematic Theology (New York: Charles Scribner, 1872), 2:50.
- For two other helpful sources (both upholding the dichotomist view), see a summary of historical views in Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1938), 191–92, and a discussion of the resurrection body that correlates several passages above in W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2003), 869–73.