Are We Really 3 Parts -- Spirit, Soul, Body? (1 Thessalonians 5:23)

Recently, a couple of friends and I have been meeting regularly to chat about the Bible. What a blessing indeed!

Twenty-five cent Chicken Wings, one dollar Draft Beers, and Christians -- talking publicly (and sometimes loudly) about their love for the Lord and His Word. Praise God for that!

Even though our conflicting schedules and the busyness of life may have prevented us from getting together the last few months, that doesn't mean that the studies that derived from those nights out have also stopped. Quite the contrary, actually!

I bring that up because this is one of those studies. In fact, out of all the things we've discussed so far, this is the one I've been working on here and there, and it's taken me several weeks in between everything else just to put the research all together.

You might think the topic is "too narrow" a focus and absurd for us to be honing in on it when we should be proclaiming Christ crucified for the sins of all mankind. Well, therein lies the point.

See, the very fact that our get-togethers always seem to drift toward a man-centered, works-righteousness type of theology disturbs me. It disturbs me so much that I'm willing to take the time to conduct a deep study on a "peripheral" subject like this one today all in the hopes that I might satisfy their curiosity and, ultimately, bring them back to a more appropriate Christ-centered laser-like focus instead (Jude 1:17-23).

Anyway, it's something I have never given much thought to before mainly because I always just skipped over and passed by it. Then again, the Scriptures are about Jesus FOR ME and not ME FOR Jesus, and so I never actually read this particular verse with myself in mind.

I'll say this though -- despite the fact that 1 Thessalonians is so often used to peddle a subtle perversion of the Gospel, I still found this topic to be a fascinating study!


1 Thessalonians. Not only do the false teachers like to misinterpret 1 Thessalonians 4:17 to offer the "Rapture" doctrine (teaching that 1 Thessalonians 4:17 describes some secret return of Christ, which will take place before Christ's second coming in judgment), but I just learned that the Charismatic/Pentecostal types like to misinterpret 1 Thessalonians 5 to teach the un-Biblical belief that we are "gods" ourselves (or perhaps "apostles" to a lesser degree).

Needless to say, I immediately knew I couldn't remain silent, but I also knew that I didn't know this epistle well enough to comment on it with any kind of authority. That's where the study below comes in.

I tried to be as comprehensive and definitive here (for my friend's sake who believes that 1 Thessalonians 5:23 can and should be used to create a "new understanding" of the Bible that "properly explains" who we "really are" when it comes to "our true new nature as sons and daughters in Christ"), but I will say that despite all the time I've spent on this study so far, it's clear that there's still quite a bit probably left unsaid so I hope you'll forgive me for that.

Still, I hope this is a good overview and summary for him and for others who have encountered this sort or subtle deception from You-Know-Who (Genesis 3:1).




QUESTION: Are We Really 3 Parts -- Spirit, Soul, Body?

ANSWER: In short, there's no definitive orthodox position on the "parts of man" so while it's definitely an interesting topic for us to discuss/explore as believers, the Biblical record and historical Christianity does not make it seem vital that we know, and so it's certainly not important enough (as a fundamental tenet of our shared faith) to cause division/enmity between us...unless it was somehow used to promote false doctrine, of course. The following is precisely what I found in God's Word (and took from various sermons/sources on the subject) related to this implication that we could be made up of 3 parts -- spirit, soul, and body -- which is derived from 1 Thessalonians 5:23.

1 Thessalonians 5:23 (ESV) Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.


*- Let me start by saying that 1 Thessalonians is a timely epistle for the Church today. Furthermore, 1 Thessalonians 5 is the kind of mindset we should all be focusing on daily. There is really so much in 1 Thessalonians 5 that we could write about that it feels like I'm doing an injustice by merely focusing in on just one single verse from that chapter. But we shall press on for now! 
*- As always, it's about CONTEXT, CONTEXT, CONTEXT! St. Paul is describing his apostolic care for the new congregation at Thessalonica, and in it he uses expressions of parental love (1 Thessalonians 2:7-8; 1 Thessalonians 2:11-12). Paul feels the strain of separation from his "children" in the Lord as a result of persecution, which has driven him from Thessalonica (Acts 17). As a result, Paul writes and earnest, fatherly letter of instruction that beautifully illustrates Law discipline and Gospel care. As you read 1 Thessalonians, reflect on Paul's pastoral concern for these new believers and also his thoughtful and comforting instruction. He shows great concern for their care and establishment in the Gospel, which is also what we need most today. 
*- Specifically, in 1 Thessalonians 5, Luther wrote: "In chapter 5 he writes of the Last Day, how it shall come suddenly and quickly. He gives them some good directions for governing other people and tells them what attitude they are to take toward the lives and teachings of others." Luther's Works 35:387

*- As mentioned, Biblically and historically, there does not seem to be any definitive orthodox position on the "parts of man," and yet, for the first three centuries of the Church, the leaders’ writings show belief in "trichotomy" (3-part view), but then "dichotomy" (2-part view) became the predominate view through the psychology of Augustine.

*- Interestingly enough, Martin Luther held to the view that man is made up of 3-parts even though he readily conceded that the spirit and soul are "united" in a sense -- as the immaterial side of human nature. Yet, most of his contemporaries during the Reformation held to the 2-part view of man. Luther, however, believed that while their nature was the same, their function was different. He wrote: "The second part, the soul, is this same spirit, so far as its nature is concerned, but viewed as performing a different function, namely, giving life to the body and working through the body." Luther's Works 21:203.

*- But at other times, his writings show that he believed the distinction between soul and spirit to be more than merely a functional one. He once wrote: "It is its [the soul's] nature to comprehend not incomprehensible things, but such things the reason can know and understand. Indeed, reason is the light of this dwelling; and unless the spirit, which is lighted with the brighter light of faith, controls this light of reason it cannot but be in error. For it is too feeble to deal with things divine. To these two parts of man [the soul and spirit] the Scriptures ascribe many things, such as wisdom and knowledge -- wisdom to the spirit, knowledge to the soul..." - Luther's Works 21:203. More of his views on this subject later.

*- This view of us being 3-parts has some merit, but it also has problems. One might say that Mark 12:30 divides man’s nature into 4-parts (heart, soul, mind, and strength), and that 1 Corinthians 7:34 divides man’s nature into 2-parts (body and spirit). So which is it then? Remember, the Lord is "not a God of confusion" (1 Corinthians 14:33) and we are to use the Bible to interpret the Bible since it doesn't contradict itself (2 Timothy 3:16). Plus, in some passages, the terms "soul" and "spirit" seem to be synonymous, and other times they seem to be distinct and hard to define precisely. Obviously, there are indeed different aspects to the human person, yet, the specific parts (as well as the specific meaning of "soul" and "spirit") must ultimately be determined by the context, context, context.

*- [Some primary proofs from God's Word for the 2-part view] There seems to be a parallel in Luke 1:46-47 with soul/spirit. Dichotomists say that this parallelism repeats the same idea with synonyms; both the spirit and the soul worship God because they are the same immaterial part. They rightly also stress that Mary's body also worshiped, as evidenced by the vocal expression, because man is whole. Scripture reports Jesus’ soul was troubled (John 12:27) and His spirit was troubled (John 13:21) by His impending crucifixion. Scripture sometimes speaks of the combination of body and soul as the whole of man (Matthew 6:25, Matthew 10:28), whereas it also considers the body and spirit as the whole (Ecclesiastes 12:7; 1 Corinthians 5:3-5). Death is sometimes described as the giving up of the soul (Genesis 35:18; 1 Kings 17:21; Acts 15:26) and then again as the giving up of the spirit (Psalm 31:5; Luke 23:46; Acts 7:59). Plus, both "soul" and "spirit" are used to designate the immaterial element of the dead (1 Peter 3:19; Hebrews 12:23; Revelation 6:9; Revelation 20:4).

*- [Some primary proofs from God's Word for the 3-part view] Man is made in the image of the Triune God (Genesis 1:27; Genesis 9:6). This is the single greatest reason to believe in a "tripartate" (3-part) nature we're told, because God is Three in One. Man, in God’s image, is three in one. No other creature is 3-part, because no other creature is made in God’s image. Then there's the 3-parts of the tabernacle and temple, which are said to be symbolic for the 3-parts of man. Jesus said He was the temple and Paul said each of us is the temple of the Holy Spirit (John 2:19-22; 1 Corinthians 6:19). Martin Luther, in his commentary on Luke 1:46-47, wrote: "In the tabernacle fashioned by Moses there were three separate compartments. The first was called the holy of holies: here was God's dwelling place, and in it there was no light. The second was called the holy place; here stood a candlestick with seven arms and seven lamps. The third was called the outer court; this lay under the open sky and in the full light of the sun. In this tabernacle we have a figure of the Christian man. His spirit is the holy of holies, where God dwells in the darkness of faith, where no light is; for he believes that which he neither sees nor feels nor comprehends. His soul is the holy place, with its seven lamps, that is, all manner of reason, discrimination, knowledge, and understanding of visible and bodily things. His body is the forecourt, open to all, so that men may see his works and manner of life."
Luther’s Works, Ed. Jaroslar Pelikan (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1956) 21:304. Qtd. in Woodward, 77. 1 Corinthians 15:44-45 reads, "It is sown a soulish body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a soulish body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, 'The first man Adam became a living soul; the last Adam [Jesus] became a life-giving spirit.'" What is the point of contrasting a "soulish" body and a "spiritual" body, if there is no contrast between soul and spirit? 1 Corinthians 2:8-3:3 highlights the glory and necessity of the Spirit’s ministry to our spirits. To quote only verses 12-15 for the sake of saving time and making a point: "But we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit from God, in order that we might understand the things freely given us by God, which things we also are speaking, not in words taught by human wisdom, but taught by the Spirit, comparing spiritual things with spiritual things. But a soulish man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he is not able to know, because they are spiritually discerned. But the spiritual man discerns all things indeed." These verses serve as setup for Paul to explicitly declare in the following verses (3:1-4) that the believers in Corinth were soulish and fleshly instead of spiritual. This again proves a serious distinction between soul and spirit. Our spirits receive the Holy Spirit, and only our spirits can discern the Spirit’s ministry of teaching all that we have been freely given from God.

*- It's worth noting, however, that an emphasis on such a subject (being so concerned with the "parts of man" rather than with God and what's truly important to Him like His glorious gift of salvation offered through the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ) is closer to the kinds of things the Greek Philosophers always emphasized and were rebuked for by Paul during his ministry. So, it’s quite possible that given the context and the audience he was addressing at that place (Thessalonica), Paul could've also been alluding to the Pythagorean and Platonic doctrine/philosophy, which was acknowledged by the Thessalonians to some extent still.

*- Others think the order is very interesting and says something to us too. They say that we should notice that "spirit" comes first and, therefore, is first in priority in the list. These same individuals tend to focus on a person's sanctification (and that person's active role in their own sanctification) and will often point to the importance of regular self-examination (2 Corinthians 13:5).

*- In my studies, I kept coming across statements that seemed to similarly summarize what they believe the apostle Paul was saying here. I’ll do my best to paraphrase them: "The verse is the exclamation point to the whole passage that speaks of the process of sanctification. Simply put, true sanctification reaches to the whole man -- his spirit, soul, and body. Paul was being emphatic here. Regarding the phrase your spirit and soul and body...All three areas (spirit, soul and body) stand in need of the sanctifying and keeping (preserving) power of God. It is a prayer that is applicable only to believers. The three terms are arranged in the order of merit, the highest first. The enumeration begins with that which is highest and purest in man and ends with the outward and material part of man. The divine sanctification begins with the inner and spiritual and reaches down to the outward and material. Spirit and soul and body should not necessarily be understood as defining the parts of man, but as representing the whole man as it relates to the believer's sanctification. Yet, the precise implication of these three descriptions of man have and will continue to be debated." It’s also why this section has been called “A Prayer For Complete Sanctification” by many in the Calvinist and Reformed camps.

*- As far as "Sanctification" is concerned, we would be wise to recall what Luther's Small Catechism has to say about it: "I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith. In the same way, He calls, gathers, enlightens, and sanctifies the whole Christian church on earth, and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. In this Christian church He daily and richly forgives all my sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise me and all the dead, and give eternal life to me and all believers in Christ. This is most certainly true." Not surprisingly, this is an EXCELLENT summary of what we read in the entirety of 1 Thessalonians! 
 
*- “Spirit” / #4151 / “pneuma” -- describes the immaterial part of the human personality in contrast outward and visible aspects of physical flesh and body

*- “Soul” / #5590 / “psuche” -- or “psyche” from “psucho” can mean to breathe, blow. English = psychology, "study of the soul"; is the breath, then that which breathes, the individual, animated creature. However, the discerning reader must understand that “psuche” is one of those Greek words that can have several meanings, the exact nuance being determined by the context. It follows that one cannot simply select of the three main meanings of “psuche” and insert it in a given passage for it may not be appropriate to the given context. The meaning of “psuche” is also contingent upon whether one is a “dichotomist” (man has 2-parts) or “trichotomist” (man has 3-parts).

*- “Body” / #4983 / “soma” --
describes an organized whole made up of parts and members and generally describes any material body, in this case the human body.

*- In the several theological theories on the topic, we find various functions are ascribed to each “part” of man, but it’s quite telling that these "theological theories" and the so-called "functions" are nowhere to be found in Scripture. That’s why such “theories” are merely speculative and we must be very careful to understand that and not allow them to influence what we believe, teach, and confess. An analogy is found in the way various psychologists describe the functions of the brain -- the vast bulk of their work is purely speculative and the rest is indicative, but not proven. This is because there is no way of proving what the brain does. We know that we think, for example, but there is no way man can ever discover how we think, or where the “seat of thinking” is. Similarly, there is no possible way we can divide man into easily defined parts with defined functions for each part.

*- When it comes to Scriptural references, we find the issue is far from settled. Most of the words in the Old Testament for “spirit” mean “spirit.” One Hebrew word for “spirit” means BOTH “soul” and “spirit,” but it is used very little. When we come to New Testament references, the exact opposite is found! Here most words for “spirit” also mean “soul.” The terms are interchangeable. So, this cannot be of much use to the tripartite (3-part) proponents. If we put all the Old Testament and the New Testament references together, we discover that there is almost a “status quo” situation, because NEITHER the bi- or tripartite arguments can be proven definitively, one way or the other Biblically. In other words, we cannot tell definitively, from Scripture itself, what the true position is. For me, while I certainly have a position, I’ll rest on Deuteronomy 29:29 “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.”

*- Generally, Hebrews 4:12 comes up in this discussion for obvious reasons. Using the previous info presented above, when I consider this verse in relation to this study, I personally tend to lean toward the understanding that the words “division of soul and spirit” do not describe two separate entities (any more than the expression “thoughts and intents” do), but are used as one might say “heart and soul” to express completeness/fullness (we can cross reference this with Luke 10:27 and Acts 4:32 to see other examples of what I mean by that, IMHO). Like we’ve already seen elsewhere, these two terms are used interchangeably to describe man’s immaterial self, his eternal inner person. Again, if we look at the literary devices used in the rest of this verse from Hebrews 4:12 that come after “division of soul and spirit,” then I think we come to this same conclusion since we find “of joints and marrow” and “of the thoughts and intents” mentioned.

*- Of course, this short overview has merely looked at the words used in Scripture. I’m sure we can do much more to research the topic. Perhaps an even more detailed study would show us something less vague, but the words themselves prove nothing except that possibly “soul” and “spirit” are exactly the same thing. When we come across such vagueness, it does not mean that God is vague or that the Bible has made a mistake either. Of course not! It just means that the information is either not important enough or that, as human beings, we are too finite to understand (Deuteronomy 29:29). Whatever the real answer may be, there is no cause for division on the issue unless such a position either way is used to, ultimately, believe/teach something else that is most certainly un-Scriptural.

*- Speaking of “un-Scriptural,” one of the things I noticed every now and then in my studies on this topic greatly concerned me and it’s worth noting just to call attention to it as a warning to the Body of Christ be very careful not to let ourselves go too far with this. We should be very careful in asserting that "man is triune because God is triune since man was made in the exact image of God" (like I’ve seen some suggest), because if that's really true, if man is really triune in the same sense that God Himself is, then, as a natural result, what we're saying is that we are actually "little gods" (with a little "g") ourselves, and then man ought to also be a creator of life, omnipotent, omnipresent, able to perform all kinds of miracles, and so on and so forth, just like Jesus Himself. To me, this type of teaching is dangerously close to the serpent's subtle deception he pulled on Eve when he told her that she can be like God too (Genesis 3:5 “…and you will be like God…”). Yes, we have a new identity in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15), and “we will rule angels” one day (1 Corinthians 6:3), but just because we are baptized, saved believers does not mean that we are somehow on par with the Lord. Philippians 2:9-11 “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

*- In summary, while I find this topic IMMENSELY fascinating for sure, if someone were to ask me to state my position on all of this right now and right this very moment, then I would have to say that I believe that the greater concern from this verse (and the passage from which it’s taken from in 1 Thessalonians 5) is not necessarily for us to better understand the “parts of man” per se, or even our own personal sanctification (since that is a work of God also), but to better understand some key truths about Jesus.

*- Many people think it’s difficult to know God’s will for their life. Not true! What is God’s will for us? Our sanctification (1 Thessalonians 4:3-5). So, we might want to look at 1 Thessalonians 5:23-24 as an “exclamation point” to all of 1 Thessalonians 5, and focus our attention on how it’s promising us complete sanctification one day ("the day of the Lord" 1 Thessalonians 5:2) as God works in us through the Holy Spirit for His glory, as opposed to focusing our attention inward to the “parts of man” that can lead to glorifying ourselves instead of glorifying God.

*- Again, while it is certainly an interesting topic for us to discuss/explore as believers, it is not vital to us, and it is certainly not important enough to cause division/enmity...unless it's being used to preach and teach false doctrine.


I know that's a lot to digest, but I hope that helps to clarify a few things and that you find it all as edifying, helpful, and informative as I did.

To reiterate, while it's certainly good for us to want to have wisdom about the things we find throughout God's Word, I personally feel as though "getting it right" on the issue of whether or not man is made up of "2-parts" or "3-parts" is a rather secondary issue when we already know His will for our lives, which, ironically, comes from the previous chapter in 1 Thessalonians.



1 Thessalonians 4:3-5 (ESV) 3 For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality; 4 that each one of you know how to control his own body in holiness and honor, 5 not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God;

[emphasis mine]


If our sanctification is His will for our lives as believers (and it is!), then we should be more concerned about that than we are about how many parts we're made up of, don't you think?

My Lutheran Study Bible reminds us of the following in regards to 1 Thessalonians: "Sanctification is the practical result of God's peace-giving work in our life through the Holy Spirit. God's sanctification of us through faith in His Son, Jesus Christ, extends to our whole person -- we are sanctified thoroughly. Complete sanctification will be ours in eternity. The entire person, outside and inside, should be sanctified. A description of a human being, however, is not limited to these three categories (spirit, soul, body). The second coming of our Lord will culminate our Christian journey here on earth. Those who are sanctified by faith in the Lord will be like wise virgins who had their oil lamps ready when the bridegroom came (Matthew 25:1-13; 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18)." 


Now, all that being said, I have to admit that I do see the trichotomist view as having more potential to lead sincere Christians down a slippery slope and into a "we are gods ourselves" belief system than the dichotomist view has.

Again, just look at some of the dangerous things we are hearing and seeing today, or research the historical heresy of "Pelagianism" and "Semi-Pelagianism" for a good example of what I mean by that.

So, be very careful, my dear brothers and sisters! Be Bereans and test all things and test the spirits (Acts 17:11; 1 Thessalonians 5:21; 1 John 4:1).

In a Lutheran layman's terms, let's not get caught up on ourselves and whether the Bible says that we are made up of 2 parts or 3 parts.

Either way, we're all sinners in need of His saving grace offered to us through the life, death, and resurrection of His Son, our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ and that's what we should always be focused on.  


NOTE: As you know, I am a newly converted Confessional Lutheran who recently escaped American Evangelicalism a little over a year ago. That being said, please contact me ASAP if you believe that any of my "old beliefs" seem to have crept their way into any of the material you see published here, and especially if any of the content is not consistent with our Confessions and Lutheran doctrine (in other words, if it's not consistent with God's Word, which our Confessions merely summarize and point us back to) so that I can correct those errors immediately and not lead any of His little ones astray (James 3:1). Finally, please be aware that you might also discover that some of the earlier pieces I wrote on this blog back in 2013 definitely fall into that category since I was a "Lutheran-In-Name-Only" at the time and was completely oblivious to the fact that a "Book of Concord" containing our Confessions even existed. In addition, there are some entries that are a little "out there" so-to-speak since the subject matter was also heavy influenced by common Evangelical concerns/criticisms that aren't that big a deal for us Lutherans. I know that now and I'm still learning. Anyway, I decided to leave those published posts up on this website and in cyberspace only because we now have this disclaimer and only to demonstrate the continuing work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in my life (Hebrews 12:2; Philippians 1:6). Finally, please know that any time we engage in commenting on and/or interpreting a specific portion of the holy Scriptures, it will always follow the verse-by-verse notes from my Lutheran Study Bible unless otherwise noted. Thank you for stopping by and thank you in advance for your time, help, and understanding. Grace and peace to you and yours!

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Thank you for visiting A Lutheran Layman! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question since we do not exercise censorship. We've seen a similar policy with other blogs and it's worth repeating: Please act as if you're a guest in my home, and we'll get along just fine. I think anyone would agree that the kind of back-and-forth that is characteristic of blogs/chat forums is becoming tiresome for all of us. Still, we should confess, edify, and love (and contend and defend when needed). Bottom line? Search the Scriptures! Apply Acts 17:11 to anything and everything you find here and, if you do happen to disagree with something you find here (which is certainly ok), or think I'm "irresponsible" and "wrong" for writing it, then please refute my position by supporting yours with...Scripture and/or the Confessions. I don't think that's an unreasonable request, especially for those who identify themselves as "Christians" here, right? Besides, Proverbs 27:17 tells us "Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend" and 2 Timothy 3:16 says, "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness." If you have an opinion that's great, I welcome it, but try to support it using God's Word. I mean, if the goal here is to help us all mature spiritually (myself included) then it should be easy to follow through on this one simple request (I'm talking to all you "Anonymous" visitors out there). Grace and peace to you and yours!