For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebr 4:12-13)
Some people view the soul and body interchangeably, while others think soul and spirit are equivalent terms. But as believers we should think of the soul as the conscious part of us, composed of mind (intellect), will, and emotions, It’s the part of us that makes choices and controls our behavior by giving orders to the body. Our spirit is the subconscious part, an internal advisor to the conscious soul.
Both are intangible and eternal and are housed in our body which is tangible and temporal. It’s designed for use in this life, and when we die we leave it behind. Paul described our body as our earthly dwelling and spoke of how we long to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling. Believers don’t desire so much to be rid of our earthly bodies, he said, as to receive our heavenly ones. He said receiving our heavenly body is the very purpose for which we were created, and that’s why God gave us the Holy Spirit at the first moment of our belief. He’s a deposit guaranteeing what is to come, which is the exchange of our earthly dwelling for our heavenly one. (2 Cor. 5:1-5)
It Wasn’t Always Like That
I believe Adam and Eve were created with a heavenly alignment of body submissive to soul which was submissive to spirit which was one with God. But at the fall this alignment was perverted and through Satan’s influence the soul began to assert itself over the spirit. Both were contaminated by sin in the process and the direct link to God was broken. In the time after the fall the soul became more assertive as man entered the period some call the Dispensation of Conscience. Man was left to decide for himself what was right and things got progressively worse until God had to wipe the slate clean and start over. This experience has been repeated again and again. Even the time of Israel’s dominance when the communication link with God was formally re-opened ended in failure. During that period Prophets were appointed to speak to the people for God and Priests to speak to God for the people. But it wasn’t enough.
The problem was that the spirit of unsaved man is confused and uncertain because of the effects of sin and often gives bad advice to his soul, which is also contaminated by sin. The cross changed all that. Now, when we are born again our spirit becomes one with the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 6:17) and the confusion and uncertainty clears up. Our spirit begins to know right and wrong as absolutes, and as our conscience it begins to serve as a reliable guide to our soul, which is still sin infested.
This is why Jesus told us that our righteousness has to surpass that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law. Not being born again, their efforts at keeping the law were acts of will and were often in conflict with what their spirits were advising them to do. For them it was still a matter of their soul asserting itself over their spirit. They just knew the law well enough to know when their spirits were advising them to break it. In Isaiah 29:13 the Lord had said, “These people come near to me with their lips (governed by the soul), but their hearts (spirits) are far from me.” Jesus accused them of looking like whitewashed tombs, beautiful on the outside, but inside full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean (Matt. 23:27) Their obedience to the law was only intellectual assent backed up by will power.
Back To Hebrews 4
But the Lord pays special attention to the motives of our heart and judges us on our intentions, not our actions. This is what the writer to the Hebrews meant when he said that the word of God can divide soul (behavior) and spirit (motive). He’s not fooled by man’s attempts at good behavior. He knows the thoughts and attitudes of our heart. Nothing is hidden from His sight. Commenting on ceremonial cleanliness He said that it’s not what goes into us that makes us unclean, but what comes out of us. “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.” (Matt. 15:17-19) Jeremiah wrote that the heart of man is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. (Jere. 17:9) After sinning with Bathsheba, David prayed that God would create in him a pure heart, and renew a steadfast spirit within him. (Psalm 51:10) This is what happens when we’re born again and the Holy Spirit unites with our spirit. It results in our receiving a pure heart. It’s what David longed for, but it couldn’t happen before the cross. (John 7:39)
In effect, the Holy Spirit works through our spirit to repossess our soul from its bondage to sin. But since it’s not the conscious part of us, our spirit can only work to influence our decisions. Our soul must choose to heed the advice of our spirit, in whose “ear” the Holy Spirit is whispering. This is what Paul meant when he told us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds (soul). (Romans 12:2) This transformation consists of consciously choosing to allow the Holy Spirit to become the primary influence in determining our actions. This is the heavenly alignment again. God’s Spirit to our spirit to our soul. This is why the Pharisees were criticized. God’s Spirit was not within them, and so their obedience was a product of their intellect, their soul. Their spirit remained unregenerate. It looked good on the outside, but inside it was all out of order. It was form without substance, and it produced self righteousness, not humility.
The biggest problem we have is that our soul is still struggling with its bondage to sin, and therefore must constantly choose to submit to our renewed spirit. Remember the soul is where our behavioral decisions are made. Our spirit is one with the Spirit of God, but can only advise. Paul described our dilemma poignantly in Romans 7-8, saying that he had the desire to do good but could not carry it out. His spirit was one with God, but his soul sometimes rebelled. Inwardly he could delight in God’s Law, but outwardly would sometimes conform to the law of sin and death. It’s actually the opposite of the Pharisees’ problem. They looked good on the outside but were full of evil thoughts and intentions. While the Lord condemned them, he directs no condemnation toward us (Romans 8:1) because although our soul often betrays us, our spirit is one with God. He goes so far as to separate the behavior from the believer saying that it’s not we who sin, but the sin nature that dwells within us. (Romans 7:20)
Will This Ever End?
When we die or are raptured, our transformation will be complete, and the Holy Spirit’s work of repossession will be finished. The heavenly alignment will be permanently restored, our regenerated soul in perpetual submission to our spirit which is one with God. Only then will we be ready for our resurrection bodies. It will no longer occur to us to behave in a manner contrary to God’s will, and we’ll finally be fit to dwell with Him forever.
The new body we receive will compare to the old one only in physical characteristics. The old one was corrupt and doomed to perish. The new one will be incorruptible and will never perish. (1 Cor. 15:53) We’ll recognize each other and will know God as we are known by Him. (1 Cor.13:12) No longer will things be hidden from our understanding or beyond our comprehension because our soul, where understanding and comprehension take place, will finally be freed from the bondage of sin. The immeasurable creative capacity with which the human mind was created will finally be unleashed for our eternal use and enjoyment. The tiny nuggets of talent and ability in the arts and sciences that we can only faintly glimpse now will become rich veins to be mined for all eternity.
And best of all, we’ll finally achieve our heart’s true desire, to be one with our Creator, body, soul, and spirit.