Soul Man, Spirit Man – Part 1

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Every once in a while, I encounter a post brewing inside me that I find intimidating because it’s more than I can handle. I’m not as clever, intelligent, or compelling in myself to make the words inside come out as I’d like.

This is one of those posts.

So if you find this to be rambling or nonsensical, it’s all my fault, not the Lord’s.

God’s been teaching me a very tough lesson in the last couple years. I’m not sure I grasp the depth of it, but I know I must if I’m to understand a desperate need within the Body of Christ. That lesson is the difference between the soul man and the spirit man.

One of the failings of Western thought is the weight we give dualism. The Greeks saddled us with a dualistic worldview that split our understanding of reality. It doesn’t matter the two lenses through which we view reality, we have an ideal ingrained in us that we can classify our interactions with reality through glasses that divide our sight along only two lines.

The major failing of our love for all things Greek in Western thought is that things that come in threes prove baffling. We can always use our dualistic glasses to see two of the three parts, but that third is either said to be nonexistent, invisible (and therefore untouchable), or just plain paradoxical.

One of the most obvious ways in which Westerners struggle with dualistic modes of thinking is our inability to grasp the tri-unity of God. '...three, it's a magic number...'Westerners don’t do well with this, whereas non-Westerners that are not burdened by Greek thought come at the Trinity more easily. We can picture God and Jesus, but the Holy Spirit is more nebulous to us. We don’t see Him or portray Him well in our theology. We have a hard time integrating Him. On the other hand, many non-Westerners assimilate understanding of the Holy Spirit more fully.

This also reflects in the reality that Western theologians, while able to at least wrestle with the tri-unity of God, are loathe to discuss the tri-unity of man. Even the best scholars in the West are more likely to see man as body + soul/spirit than as body + soul + spirit.

But the Scriptures seem plain that man was made in the image of God, who is triune. The Bible also speaks differently about the soul and spirit of man. While many of us will readily claim the spirit of man was deadened at the Fall, we’re not as capable of explaining what happens to that spirit at the new birth. We wind up treating soul and spirit as the same thing. We turn man into a dichotomous being rather than a trichotomous one.

The more I weigh this before the Lord, the more I believe our dichotomous view of man as being merely body + soul explains much of the deadness of the Western Church. In fact, I wonder if our spiritual glasses are so attuned to only seeing body + soul that we have been practicing a form of Christianity in the West that is not really Christianity at all.

The upshot? If we do not have a proper understanding of the trichotomous nature of man, then we are going to practice a form of godliness that has no power.

Consider these verses:

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God….
—Romans 8:16

For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.
—Hebrews 4:12

These passages make a distinction between soul and spirit. That distinction is important because failing to split them results in a failure to know how Christians are to live by the Spirit.

When a person is born again, the Holy Spirit quickens the spirit of man. That spirit of man is the conduit by and through which the Holy Spirit operates. It’s our connection to the Lord. If you built a house with no means for connecting into the power grid, how would your run your appliances? The spirit of man connects with the Spirit of God, and that’s how the Christian is powered for service. It’s how we hear God and receive guidance, too.

Those who have not been born again are deadened in their spirits and cannot connect to God. Therefore, they cannot be led of God or discern spiritual things. The true spiritual man, then, is the one who operates out of this connection and allows this “inner redeemed man” to control the outer portions of his life, namely the soul and body.

The soul is a different entity altogether. The soul contains our emotions and thoughts. It’s the primary way we relate to the world and to others in common things. The true spiritual man allows his spirit to take precedent over the soul and guide it, the body, too. The soul, though, is eternal, while the body is not. The soul and body should be driven by the Spirit through the spirit of man.

At least that’s the idea.

But there’s a problem…

When I consider the state of the Western Church, I see the fruit of teaching that man is a two-part entity and not a three-part: people who have substituted the soul for the spirit and subsequently operate out of their souls instead of their spirits. I believe this explains the flailing we see in Western churches:

  • The inability to discern the leading/voice of the Spirit
  • Powerlessness
  • Attraction to dynamic personalities rather than to the spiritually mature
  • Fruitless ministries and programs
  • Rootless, fruitless, wandering Christians
  • The failure of much of our spiritual counseling
  • Evangelistic efforts that never catch on (or people who simply cannot evangelize)
  • Improper understanding of the Scriptures

In fact, I suspect that many of the failures within Western Christianity can be directly traced to our confusing the power of the soul for the power of the spirit.

  • It explains why charismatics get so pumped up by speakers and events that appeal to flash and emotionalism.
  • It explains why so many Christians get fired up by speakers who preach doctrinally-sound  messages that appeal to the intellect, yet never seem to bring about any real change in people’s lives.
  • It explains why so many Christians spend their whole lives trying to find yet another spiritual experience to keep them going from one day to the next.
  • It explains why we have millions of books on Christian topics, yet so little of it sinks in.
  • It explains why so many spiritual gifts that people clam to possess seem so meager or faulty.
  • It explains why so many Christians are silently wondering why things aren’t right in their spiritual lives.

We’re living out of our emotions and our intellect, out of our souls, but the inner man that God says is the true man is still wadded up deep inside of us, dying to get out and actually change our lives.

I’m beginning to wonder how pervasive this problem is. How many of us have spent our entire Christians lives living out of our souls, yet never really knowing what the life of God is because we’re not really channeling it?

The true tragedy here is that so many of us have convinced ourselves that we’re living a Spirit-led life, but we’re not allowing that life to shine through because we have no clue what it actually looks like. The pieces aren’t coming together, so we settle for a life that falls far short of what God desires for us.

In part two of this two-parter, I hope to explore this more. Your comments are greatly welcome.

50 thoughts on “Soul Man, Spirit Man – Part 1

    • Rob,

      It’s not that I’ve never grasped trichotomy before. That’s always been my position. But I’ve never thought of it in terms of what it brings to the table of the Church as a whole and how our misunderstanding of it creates so many problems. It’s a bit like “swallowing the red pill.”

  1. Love your insights. Reading this has opened up a whole new area of thought to pursue. I, myself, sense something is missing in most of us, most of the time. I struggle sometimes with hearing the voice of the Spirit. Looking forward to the next post and hopefully some guidance.

    Love you brother,
    Sonny

    • Sonny,

      I think it not only explains happenings like Lakeland, but also explains why churches that are anti-charismatic suffer from the same basic lack. It’s that tone deafness to the Spirit. People are listening to their souls but not their innermost man where the Spirit resides with our spirit.

  2. I think this is spot on. it horrifies me what gets accepted as of the spirit in some places — things that are clearly of man! A false anthropology — yes, you’ve got me thinking .. not only about our tripartite identity but more generally that in many respects we don’t recognise what is of God and what isn’t because we don’t know who we are. We don’t know what we’re capable of, or what we’re not capable of. Whenever I see people trying to make the Spirit “happen” (huh? is the right response) by playing the right feelings and atmosphere, I get very uneasy. He is not a shiver down the spine, He is the Holy One among us.

  3. Dee

    “It explains why charismatics get so pumped up by speakers and events that appeal to flash and emotionalism. ”

    You are spot on! I was one of those, you walk out feeling really good but nothing changes…

  4. This is really interesting. Would you say the triune nature of man has anything to do with the Great Commandment – the heart, soul and mind? Or would that be something totally different…

    I’ve also always been a bit fuzzy on how exactly God dwells and works in us after our conversions, but it all makes a lot more sense in the context of us having this ‘spirit’ aspect.

    • Hin-Tai,

      The great Chinese Christian teacher Watchman Nee would call the three the inner man, the outer man, and the outermost man. Those would correspond to spirit, soul, and body. The inner man is the most concealed in most people. From afar, someone can see my outermost man, and up close can interact with my outer man

      The divisions are always a bit artificial in some ways. Perhaps Nee frames it best. When the Bible talks about the flesh, it doesn’t always mean the body. More often it refers to the soul. I mean, our bodies are just a shell. It’s the soul that reflects who we are in our thoughts and emotions, the real part that leads us into sin.

  5. Jonathan

    I’ve actually been thinking about this quite a bit recently, only using different words.

    I teach at a Christian High School. My most challenging class, through probably the most rewarding, is my 10th grade Bible class. I’ve been noticing, and discussing with my students, that while every one of them claims a relationship with Christ and most of them show the signs of a growing, learning, child of God, the Fruit of the Spirit isn’t really shining from their lives.

    For that matter, I’ve had to look at myself and admit that far more often than I would like, the Fruit of the Spirit seems absent entirely in my own life. We discussed this recently and came to the conclusion that most Christians, myself included, see the Fruit of the Spirit as something we’re supposed to muster up of our own accord. We know we’re supposed to be patient, so we grit our teeth and wait out each trying circumstance as it comes, knowing that this is what a good little Christian does.

    The problem is, that doesn’t really work. It’s called the Fruit of the Spirit for a reason. If it’s not something being done through us in a portion of our lives that isn’t a self help guide, it’s not really the Fruit God’s looking for.

    Thanks for the insight.

  6. Brian Cragin

    Dan,

    Good post and good luck digging to the bottom of this. I relate with your opening paragraphs, particularly on this subject.

    Your first comment on this post suggested that you are looking at this from the corporate impact. But that is only an extrapolation out of what you will find on the personal level. You will still need to understand the intimate inner-workings within the person. As I believe you are doing.

    I believe you are correct though in your corporate assessments, but that isn’t far enough. Those are too easily gained from simple observations.

    We must push further into the depths to understand, not what isn’t, but what is “The Way.” And when we look at that canvas to paint our picture on it is blank… and very big.

    Might I recommend reading, or rereading if you already have, Dark Night of the Soul Books 1 and 2 by St. John of the Cross. Not to understand these events, but there are some really good nuggets of explanation about how people, specifically the inner man, relate and interact with God.

    Anyways, enjoy the site. Keep at it.

  7. When I was in Bible College, my professors were dismissive of seeing the trinity as proving that the image of God had three parts as well. Apparently the idea was somewhat popular among early Pentecostals. Since there are other biblical proofs for the suppostion of tripartite man, I didn’t buy the negation then, and I don’t buy it now. That the soul and spirit are hard to distinguish is beyond doubt, but the spirit of the man is the genesis of rebirth and new life in the man (Romans 8:10) as you have so well stated.

    I find your analysis of the practical repercussions of missing this doctrine fascinating. One of those same professors used to say, “bad doctrine always leads to bad practice.” You seem to lay a lot of bad practice at the feet of this doctrine. You may well be on to something, my brother, I’ll keep reading with interest.

  8. In Corinthinans, Paul says that the “natural” man cannot receive the things of God. When you look it up in the Greek, the word is “psychikos” – the root is from psuche or the “soul.”

    Also look at 1 Thessalonians 5.23 – spirit and soul and body.

    John Lake’s writings led me on to how the spirit of man operates in the spiritual realm much like the natural man operates much like the natural man in the natural world. That brings a whole lot of understanding to things such as Paul’s hearing of “unspeakable” words in the third heaven.

  9. Peyton

    Right on, Dan! Thanks.

    Dorothy Sayers wrote a book many years ago called “The Mind of the Maker.” She uses the arts, especially drama, to illustrate the trinity of creativity, showing what happens if any part of the trinity is overemphasized or, conversely, underplayed. She extends the thought to the Holy Trinity and what happens when we over- or underidentify with one of the Persons.

    Read also Watchman Nee’s perceptive booklet “The Latent Power of the Soul.” I personally find that much of what we call “spiritual” is blatent soul!

    Peyton

  10. loneman

    dear Dan,

    I am SO happy with Your post.
    Watchman Nee wrote ‘the release of the Spirit; exhausting piece but with very clear understandable insights.

    Please continue – because the devil wants nothing more than carnal, soulish christians.

    • Peyton

      loneman, I think we are referring to two diffferent books by Watchman Nee.

      His books are truly refreshing — especially as they come from a culture much different from ours. Actually, the Bible also comes from a culture much different from ours, but we read into it (maybe “force it to fit into” is better) our own worldview.

      Peyton

      • Peyton,

        I updated my Godly Reads page to include The Release of the Spirit and also the extraordinarily good Sit, Walk, Stand. Every time I read that latter book, it brings a tear to my eye—it’s that good.

  11. Mark

    i agree with your views concerning the state of the western church, Dan.

    I also agree that we’re dealing with a classic case of “A form of godliness, but denying the power therof”

    Personally, I think repentance is the missing link between a wayward church and her shepherd-that leads to the new birth.
    So much more than admitting I’m a sinner-
    Repentance is a completely radical change of mind about who I am and who God is. The divorce rate in the church is statistically the same as it is outside the church. Could that be because the people in the church are essentially the same as those outside the church- Lost- dead in trespasses and sins? The only difference? Those within the church are religious- which really isn’t much help at all.

    • Mark,

      People who are missing this may still be born again. They simply don’t know how to operate out of the spiritual man rather than the soulish one. For some people that transition will be quick, while others will take years, even decades. I think in the West we are so used to operating out of the soul that for most of us “even decades” is the more likely outcome.

  12. Dee

    I have noticed a lot of people are reliant on other books apart from the bible. Yes other books might give some good info. don’t get me wrong.. I have read a lot of books but I have made a rule to myself to only read the bible. We need to be come more dependant on the holy spirit to reveal important truths to us via the bible rather than from other people. Just a thought.. use it -dont use it? I just really believe that other people’s opinions, doctrines and beliefts can cause confusion and the bible should be the only source!

    • Hi Dee,

      I deeply appreciate your heart desire for spiritual truth. That being said, I think it is unwise to discount the thoughts and words of saints, both living and departed, as they relate to doctrine, etc. I think sola scriptura is the key, not solo scripture which is what I pick up from you comment. Taking your comment to an extreme, and I do not think this is your intent, one could argue that one does not need preachers to expound the Word. The key is discernment. I think much of the American church lacks adequate amounts of it. Anyway, I hope I do not come across as beating you up. You will be hard pressed to find someone with a higher view of Scripture than myself, but I have found myself tremendously discipled and edified by the word of others.

      Again, thank you for your desire and hunger for God’s word

      In His grip,

      Ron

    • Dee,

      Here is a truth that we continue to ignore in the American Church that we must start paying more attention to: We are a BODY for a reason.

      One of those reasons is the wisdom of the Body. God places wise people in the Body for the building up of the Body. To reject their gifts to the Body is like saying, “I will no longer use my eyes.” That’s a self-defeating proposition. Paul tells us that we should weigh prophetic words. If we exclude them altogether, how is that weighing?

      I am the Christian I am today because of God’s working through the words spoken to me by other people, both living and dead. My understanding of the Word not only comes from the Holy Spirit living in me but also the Holy Spirit living in other people. That’s by God’s wisdom and design. That’s why there can be no “Lone Ranger” Christians.

  13. Dee

    I guess due to my experience within our overly charismatic church which I left led me to really rely on the bible. Leaving brought a lot of unclear things because I genuinly believed what our church was teaching until they brought in the lakeland revival into the church. So my dependance on the bible is tremendous. I am not forbidding other books but the bible should be the main book we refer to in our search for truth, understanding and wisdom.

    • Dee, et al.,

      My own experiences dealing with charismania have only helped me grow because I took the time to weigh everything that was being said. This is a major lack in most parts of the charismatic movement. The Berean mentality simply does not exemplify the movement, and this is to our shame. This explains why people fall for flat-out stupid and erroneous teachings.

      See, the movement would be self-correcting if more people STOPPED doing these two things: accepting every teaching without discernment/testing and bailing on the movement after getting burned by bad teaching. By staying in, by applying godly discernment, this is how things stay right.

      And this is not just a charismatic issue. Every church in America suffers from bad teaching and practice to some extent. But what do people do in response? They flee. And we can’t keep doing that. Church shopping and hopping robs the Church in the long run! It prevents us from working through disagreements as the Bible says we should. It prevents us from correcting error. It prevents us from being corrected. Everyone loses!

      My church is not perfect. There is charismania in my church, too. I stand against it there as I do here. And people are listening. Many people in my church got burned by Lakeland. I have friends who have left my church because of this.

      But where do you go? There is no safe place if we keep bolting for perceived greener pastures elsewhere. We have to fix ourselves (and let the Lord fix us) from within. We have to grow where we are planted. This is not to say that people should not leave a truly toxic church, only that people are too willing to call a church toxic and not all that willing to be change agents. This is the failure of Protestantism: that each of us is a protester, which means that the only perfect church will be the church of Me, Myself, and I. And that’s a very tiny, self-absorbed kingdom that will accomplish very little for God in the long run.

  14. Dee

    I don’t see you as beating me up in any way Ron, in fact I welcome healthy criticism. This is just where I am at and anyone who might be confused, unsure or going through trouble- the bible should be the first tool in life 🙂

  15. Dee

    I understand there being no perfect church,there are no perfect people either but one thing I would expect is at least close to perfect doctrine. A teacher must teach and he must teach correctly. I don’t know everything and I am not claiming I do, nor do I say that I want to do this walk alone. I have always depended on people and I am currently moving away from the people and reading my bible and depending on God alone for now!. I want a pastor to be able to discern more than I can. I want to be able to learn from him and be able to trust him.

    When a pastor’s wife laughs uncontrollably throughout the whole service.. i find this disturbing.. and this is why I am the way I am. I want to find a church that allows the holy spirit to flow but discredits disorder! I at least want a biblical church.. Yes no man is an island, in fact a friend of mine checks in on me regularly to see if I have found a church yet. I understand the need for other input but the bible is the final authority and if someone speaks and it does not fit with the bible then I will reject it. All I am saying is that the bible is more important. If a prophet speaks, his teaching or what ever he or she does, it must be in line with the bible.

    I always took a pastor at his word and I never really bothered about testing it because I thought. aah if you go to church, a claimed man of God would teach correctly. It has been a shock to my whole universe but it was a good shock because now I am aware. Very aware.

    Please understand me, I love church, I love worship and I love people and I love their input that is why my blog is open for critism and opinions because I know that christians have the spirit of God within them also. I am only stating that the Bible is the most important book of all books. I have read many books that have really helped me in life but the book that has really helped me right now is the bible…

  16. Dee

    I approached the pastor about this whole todd bently thing before making my choice for leaving as I take leaving a church seriously! I loved my church, I was so in love with the church and the people that it really hurt me to leave. Their opinion was that i was trying to tell them how to run the church (even if I had scripture to back it up) I was being ‘critical with a spirit of religion.” I forgive them, I really do but now where do I go? I have come across a reformed charismatic church.. which I will give a try.. hold thumbs and pray for me 🙂

    • Caron,

      You sure like Justin Peters! Every single one of your comments to this blog has included a link to his site.

      I got halfway through the demo you mentioned but could not see how it dealt with the issues talk about in my blog post. Could you please tell me what the connection is?

  17. Dee

    HI Dan,

    the biblical church in my eyes is Paul’s advice to those in Corinthians.. Allow the work of the Holy spirit but don’t go overboard. If there is tongues – there must be an interpreter or there should be no speaking in tongues at all. We should rather speak words that people can understand.. If someone is sick, one should pray for that person providing the annointing of oil (this is in the bible). I dont’ see holy laughter in the bible and i certainly see no account of being slain in the spirit. I know that the holy spirit gives us abilities but primarily the focus should be Jesus who is Lord, God in the flesh who came to pay the penalty for our sins, who rose from the dead and showed us that whoever believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life.!

    The church should edify and build up! Nothing should be done to create stumbling blocks in people lives or confusion. If all the people are speaking in tongues how does this benefit anyone? The focus should be repentance and seeing the fruit of the holy spirit take place in our lives, such as longsuffering, patience, kindness and so forth. The pastor should teach, because this is a huge calling and he should do it with love and care as christ cares for his flock, so should the pastor have that same concern in teaching effectively. That about sums it up.. The focus at our church was lost.. it became all about the feeling.. the hype.. falling down here and there, laughing uncontrollably.. the more you did this “the more spiritual you were regarded to be” No… not to me.. Love is more important! i want change in my heart and in my mind.. I want true reformation and God’s work in my life. I don’t need the emotional hype. As long as Jesus is the focus! I am no perfect person and I need Jesus not hype and emotion!

  18. Dee

    I came across a cool site http://www.spiritualabuse.org (i think) anyway it explains a lot..

    I guess not all churches are as bad as the one I experienced. anyway back to your blog…

    “How many of us have spent our entire Christians lives living out of our souls, yet never really knowing what the life of God is because we’re not really channeling it?” re your quote:

    The only time I really feel like I am in the spirit is when I pray and worship.. to be honest I really get it when I am in prayer.. however God is always on my mind but when I pray for people or a country or a situation I can feel the concern even though I don’t even know the entire situation.. that is the holy spirit. If I could have the ability to always be like that, it would be great.. I look forward to the day I am totally rid of my “flesh”

  19. Caron

    Hi Dan,

    It was in response to some of the comments… Yours to “Dee, et al” and some others between you and Dee… Yes! I do highly value the work of Justin Peters! 🙂 I cannot tell you what I was going through when I became familiar with his seminar. It was so awful… I was in a work situation – the head of a national ministry under the umbrella of a conservative law firm that had gone completely WoF and relying on “prophets” etc… It was extraordinarily painful overall and hurt many, many, many. I began to recognize spiritual abuse under the guise of “the word of the Lord” and had endured much of it. I attend a very, very sound church now, but had been in a big time charismatic church for over 12 years and in this situation began to feel a little like I was losing my bearings… Justin’s ministry helped me more than I can say – rather God used Justin’s ministry to help and begin the long road of healing me. Not to mention the countless others he has helped who have been deluded by false prophets and certain charismaniac teachings. I love my brothers and sisters who are charismatic – but when I see them putting hope in things and people outside of God and His Word, it breaks my heart. Therefore, I was writing this more for Dee, as I know I have posted here before. I didn’t realize I had posted much, however. 🙂 I appreciate your light hearted way of approaching me and I always appreciate your posts.
    Sorry for no paragraphs… Not feeling well… God bless you!

  20. Dee

    Hi Caron, I briefly browsed his website and will look into it further. Thank you. You sound like you have had some of the same experience. I am also trying to find my bearings again! Appreciate you input! 🙂

  21. Caron

    Thanks, Dee! I am going to also look into the spiritual abuse web site you mentioned… Have you ever read “Toxic Faith” or “The Subtle Power of Spiritual Abuse?” The latter was the best I have read on this!

    God bless you, sister!

    Caron

  22. Dee

    I havn’t read it. but I really want to know the signs and help people who have gone through the same thing as me. I have come to realise that abuse is very common today within the church, especially the charismatic church. However the only abuse I have really experienced was the church i attended. when reading into that website, I was astounded at the traits of abuse and the signs which really reflects the church I was in. I kept thinking I was wrong, that maybe I was being critical but I now know that I was in a toxic environment, manipulative and controlling to a large extent.

    I kept wondering why people left the church.. i was too nervous to ask. My husband and I were the oldest members and all the others were new. I lost count how many people left.. I assumed they had either fallen away, back slidden or had a critical spirit because that was the main message given when people left. I should have seen the signs. I will look into that book. I am very interested in educating myself further and won’t make the same mistake of falling for it again..

    Bless You Sister! 😉

    • sheadian whilby

      be mindful though that we should be respectful of people on God`s platform, remember david and saul, i know what you are talking about, many people who are placed in a position of authority, abuse the the power we call influence, many times they are blinded, or just plain ignorant ( as in lacking some degree of knowledge), if we neglect to study God`s word, we cannot speak for Him, if we do not speak for Him we are speaking ffrom ourselves, which is of this flesh and of this world. I pray That God will guide you through His Holy Spirit, in receiving truth. God Bless you

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