What is the difference between soul and spirit?
Thank you for asking this pertinent question. Theologians have debated this question for years. In my first college course I was taught there is no difference between soul and spirit, that man is material (body) and immaterial (soul and spirit viewed as the same). This view is known as “dichotomy.” Later when God began to open my eyes regarding the Spirit-filled life, I saw the importance of seeing a difference between the soul and the spirit. I believe the human constitution consists of body, soul and spirit. This view is known as “trichotomy.”
Each side of the debate highlights their “prooftexts.” For me, understanding the New Testament concept of death to indwelling sin, followed by union with the indwelling Christ, convinced me to see a difference between soul and spirit. Galatians 2:20 says of believers “I am [have been] crucified with Christ.” Romans 6:6 says, “Knowing this, that our old man is [was] crucified with him.” Therefore the “I” of Galatians 2:20 is more specifically the “old man” of Romans 6:6. What part of you is this old man that was crucified with Christ? What part of you got killed?
Physical death occurs when the soul separates from the body. Apparently, that has not occurred for those reading this! Therefore the part of you that died—the old man—must be your spirit. The old man is your unregenerated human spirit. But at salvation you were placed into Christ, therefore His history, therefore His death and resurrection. Christ “died unto sin” (Rom. 6:10). So when you were placed into Christ, therefore His death, you—your unregenerated spirit/your old man—died with Christ unto sin (Rom. 6:2). Your old man died with Christ and was raised with Christ the new man. The new man is your regenerated human spirit. It is the new creation where “all things have become new” (2 Cor. 5:17). It is God’s “seed” (literally sperma), His nature implanted into you.
Generally, theologians agree that your soul consists of your mind, affections and will. It is your “self” comprising your personality. Your body is the seat of world-consciousness, your soul is the seat of self-consciousness, and your spirit is the seat of God-consciousness. Prior to salvation your spirit was alienated from the life of God. But once you are regenerated your spirit consists of God’s nature implanted into you. This is where the Holy Spirit moves in. When you walk by faith and thus walk in the Spirit, the Spirit imparts to you the life of Christ. This is the Spirit-filled life.
I can understand the debate between dichotomy and trichotomy. One of my professors, Stewart Custer, explained it this way. When a believer walks in the flesh, he looks like a dichotomy, because in that condition the spirit part of him is hidden. But when a believer walks in the Spirit, he looks like a trichotomy, because the Spirit through the human spirit is now ruling over soul and body, revealing a dimension unseen otherwise.