A TRIPARTITE BEING
God certainly aspires to sanctify us wholly. He wants to preserve us in the three parts of our being—to preserve our spirit, our soul, and our body. According to 5:23, we are tripartite beings; that is, we have three parts: spirit, soul, and body.
When I was a young Christian, I learned the truth concerning man’s tripartite being, and I contended for this truth. In theology this is known as trichotomy. There is also the school of dichotomy, which teaches that man is of two parts, body and soul. First Thessalonians 5:23 proves strongly that the school of dichotomy is not correct. In this verse there is a conjunction between the words spirit and soul and also between the words soul and body. This indicates that the spirit, the soul, and the body are different and distinct. Nevertheless, some teachers of the Bible claim that the words spirit and soul are synonyms. This can be compared to saying that the different members of our physical body, for example, the stomach and the liver, are the same. It is a very serious misunderstanding to claim that the soul and the spirit are synonymous.
Years ago, a missionary who believed in dichotomy came to Hong Kong to attend a conference I was holding there. After one of the meetings, he asked for a time to have fellowship with me. He told me that the conference was wonderful. Then he went on to say, “You teach that man is of three parts. I don’t believe this. Man has just two parts—the visible part and the invisible part.” I replied, “Brother, to say that man is of three parts is not my teaching; it is the teaching in the Bible. What would you say about 1 Thessalonians 5:23? In this verse Paul speaks of the spirit and the soul and the body, three nouns with two conjunctions. How can you say that man is of only two parts?” He answered, “I know this verse, but I don’t believe that the spirit and the soul are two different things.” Then I said to him, “Brother, this means that you don’t believe the Bible.” He then claimed that he believed the Bible to the uttermost and that no matter what I would say, he would continue to believe that the spirit and the soul are synonyms. At that point I said, “If you think that the spirit and the soul are synonymous, this is like saying that the nose and the mouth are the same. If you want to believe this, I won’t argue with you. But to me, the mouth is the mouth, and the nose is the nose. Do you say things with your nose, or do you smell things with your mouth?”
I relate this incident to point out that there is a big difference between the spirit and the soul. The spirit and the soul are not synonymous. Rather, the spirit is the spirit, and the soul is the soul. Just as the nose and the mouth are different organs with different functions, so the spirit and the soul are different organs and have different functions. First Thessalonians 5:23 speaks of the spirit and the soul and the body. This indicates clearly that we are of three parts.
It is easy to understand what it means for the body to be preserved. In chapter four Paul commands the believers to abstain from fornication. To abstain from fornication is to preserve our body in sanctification. But what does it mean to preserve our soul and our spirit? We need to be able to explain in a practical way how to preserve our spirit and our soul.
A SHORTCOMING IN READING THE BIBLE
We Christians have a shortcoming in the way we read the Bible. This shortcoming is that we take things for granted and assume we understand them. For example, in reading 5:23 we may say, “Oh, I know what 1 Thessalonians 5:23 says. It tells us that our spirit and soul and body should be preserved complete. From this verse we know that we should not believe in dichotomy, that man is of only two parts, but should believe in trichotomy, that man is of three parts. I, therefore, believe that man is of three parts.” This is good, but it is not adequate, because it does not render much help in a practical way. Instead of taking this verse for granted, we need to seek to understand how to preserve our spirit and our soul.
Can you give me the name of a Christian book that explains how to preserve our spirit and our soul? I do not know of any Christian writing that speaks concerning this matter. I believe that if there were such a writing, we would have learned of it during the course of the last fifty years. As we have pointed out, some Bible teachers do not believe that our spirit and soul are different parts. How could they tell us how to preserve our spirit and our soul? Therefore, my burden in this message is related to the preserving of the spirit and the soul.
(Life-Study of 1 & 2 Thessalonians, Chapter 23, by Witness Lee)