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Ask the Pastor

† Theological musings and answers to selected questions by a confessional Lutheran pastor.






03 October 2005

That’s the Spirit (and the Soul)!


Q: I’m seeking understanding of the ways in which God “put us together” as humans. Are “soul” and “spirit” similar concepts? Also, what is the relationship among soul, spirit, mind, and emotions?

A First of all, although their meanings overlap somewhat on the pages of Scripture, “soul” and “spirit” aren’t synonyms for each other. Neither is easy to fully define, but we can examine them in some detail.

Most Bible translations use three different words for the Hebrew ruach and the Greek pneuma. Depending on context, you might read “breath,” “wind,” or “spirit” in the English text. When you realize this, it’s easier to appreciate the interplay of words and actions in Scripture. For example, when God “breathed into Adam,” you could say God “spirited” or “inspired” the lifeless figure, making him a “living creature. (Genesis 2:7)” Jesus paralleled this as He “breathed” on His disciples and said to them, “‘Receive the Holy Spirit.’ (John 20:22)” At Pentecost, the sound of the rushing “wind” gave announcement to the disciples of this manifesting of the “Spirit” (see Acts 2:1-4).

Spirit can mean life itself, especially since breath is essential to life. We see this in Jesus’ death: Matthew 27:50 says, “Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.” Mark 15:37 says that Jesus “uttered a loud cry and breathed his last.” The same root word is used for breath and spirit, both letting us know that He gave up His life.

Scripture sometimes uses “spirit” to mean one’s desires which are in tune with the divine will. This happens especially when spirit and flesh are contrasted. While flesh and blood beings are not condemned because they are composed of matter, “flesh” does stand for all base desires and all wickedness that clings by conception and birth to individuals. In contrast, “spirit” stands for the ongoing changes worked in the believer by the Word of God and his Holy Spirit.

“Spirit” can also mean that which does not have physical being. Angels are “ministering spirits (Hebrews 1:14)” and “God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth. (John 4:24)” Among the powers of darkness, “demon” and “evil spirit” are used interchangeably.

“Soul” likewise defies simple definition. It relates to life or being alive. When God made Adam and breathed into him, Adam became a “living soul”; many newer translations render “soul” as “creature” or “being.” An important thing to note: Adam didn’t receive a soul; he became one. Too often, we divorce body and soul, or thing of one as central and the other as an attachment or an accessory. God here reminds us that to be fully human is to be an enfleshed soul possessed of the Holy Spirit. What we lost in Adam’s fall, we received back in Christ’s death and resurrection.

In New Testament readings, as people are converted and “souls” brought into the church, they don’t leave their physical bodies behind. After Peter’s Pentecost sermon, “Those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:41)” This doesn’t mean 3000 disembodied believers but flesh and blood creatures whose lives belonged to Christ.

Sometimes “soul” takes on a narrower meaning. Once a person is alive, some part of that person persists even after physical death. In our Western way of thinking, this is the “soul” that usually comes to mind. Revelation 6:9 mentions martyrs’ souls kept beneath the altar and Jesus warns us not to “fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. (Matthew 10:28)”

The Bible is vague as to exactly what this soul is, or what it does in the interim between death and resurrection. Perhaps the transition seems instantaneous, since eternity is not bound by time. Whatever the case, we know that the souls of departed believers are kept safe until the resurrection of all flesh, when the believers will be raised to live forever with Jesus — body, mind, and soul together.

Finally, we touch on emotions, an integral but often misunderstood part of human life. They may be triggered by thoughts, beliefs, or physical condition; likewise they influence thoughts, beliefs, and physical condition. The safest thing to say is that emotions are expressions of ourselves, of our living beings, and let it stand right there. Spirit and flesh both desire: Faith wants to please God; self wants to please self. Emotions are good or bad depending upon their source, their object, and their content.

God likewise expresses Himself in anger, in grief, and in love. In the Person of His Son, He felt friendship, sorrow, and loneliness. God-created human flesh became the chosen dwelling of our Savior. Lowering Himself to our level, He lifted our flesh out of the ashes, dust, and mud and guarantees it a heavenly dwelling through His death and resurrection. So also, He continually uplifts our hearts and minds, our souls, spirits, and emotions — all that we have and are!

Scripture quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version™, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles.

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Walter Snyder is the pastor of Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Emma, Missouri and coauthor of the book What Do Lutherans Believe.

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