In Hebrews 4:12-13, what is the difference between soul and spirit? Is this human spirit or Holy Spirit? -- Julio Carranza
What's the difference between soul and spirit? Hebrews 4:12 and 1 Thessalonians 5:23 are the passages I am looking at. -- James (Brazil)

In Hebrews 4, spirit refers to the human spirit. The sword penetrates the heart, dividing (human) soul from (human) spirit. Is this a poetic way of describing the state of being unprepared at Judgment Day, or is something deeper indicated? That is hard to say.

We moderns may be tempted to impose our own categories of thought on biblical concepts and terminology. When I was a small child, I believed that when one died, his soul left his body. Yet in the Old Testament, nephesh includes the body. Even in older English usage, one might say "all souls lost" (as in a shipwreck). Yet nowadays such phraseology is rare. You may also remember that in the older English versions of the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12), the materialistic fool speaks to himself, "Soul, you have plenty of good things." In mainstream biblical thought, it must be emphasized that soul is not a part of the person; it is the person.

The spirit, on the other hand, is not the person, but something interior and immaterial. (Recall that spirit in the biblical languages also can mean breath.) Spirit was not conceived as something imaginary or intangible, but rather something very real, even if hidden from sight. Spirit is nothing else than the gift of God to every human, which inclines toward doing what is right -- in contrast to the flesh, which inclines towards doing what is wrong.

This means that the soul has free will. It must choose between spirit and flesh. "The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Mark 14:38).

To divide soul and spirit, then (Hebrews 4:12), would mean to distinguish the spiritual aspect of a person (spirit) from the decision-making soul.

What about how to read 1 Thessalonians 5:23! Spirit, soul, and body are not necessarily three completely separate parts of a person. Rather, they refer to the person in three different aspects: the spiritual person, the entire person, and the physical person. Thus Paul is asking for thorough sanctification for the Thessalonians.

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