Before man is regenerated, his spirit is far away from God and is dead. The meaning of death is to be separated from life. The ultimate name of life is God. Since death means to be separated from life, and God is life, then to be dead is to be separated from God. Man’s spirit apart from God is deadened, having no fellowship with Him. The soul controls the whole man so that he lives either in his ideas or in excitement. The lusts and desires of the body bring the soul into subjection.
Man’s spirit became deadened; therefore, there is the need for the spirit to be resurrected. The rebirth which the Lord Jesus spoke about to Nicodemus is the rebirth of the spirit. To be born again is not a matter related to our body, as Nicodemus thought, nor is it a matter related to our soul, because not only is the "body of sin" to be made of none effect (Rom. 6:6), but also "they who are of Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and its lusts" (this is the soul) (Gal. 5:24). We ought to especially emphasize that regeneration is the impartation of God’s life into man’s spirit. Because Christ has made redemption for our soul and destroyed the principle of the flesh, we who are one with Him can have a share in His resurrected, deathless life. Our being one with Christ’s death and our initial step of obtaining His resurrection life are in our spirit. To be born again is completely a matter in the spirit; it has no relationship with the soul or the body.
Man is unique among all God’s creation not because he has or is a soul, but because he has a spirit, and this spirit united with a soul becomes a man. This kind of union causes man to be unique in the universe. According to the Bible, man’s soul alone cannot form any relationship with God. Man’s relationship with God is in his spirit. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him must use their spirit. Only spirit can relate to Spirit. Only spirit can worship Spirit. Therefore, in the Bible we see that only spirit can serve Spirit (Rom. 1:9; 7:6; 12:11), only spirit can know Spirit (1 Cor. 2:9-12), only spirit can worship God who is Spirit (John 4:23-24; Phil. 3:3), and only spirit can receive revelation from God who is Spirit (Rev. 1:10; 1 Cor. 2:10).
We should, therefore, keep in mind that God always deals with man by means of man’s spirit and also accomplishes His plan through man’s spirit. For man’s spirit to thus fulfill God’s purpose, the spirit must continue, without ceasing, to be in living union with God Himself and not for a moment follow the outward emotions, desires, and ideas of the soul, thus contradicting the divine law. Otherwise, death will come, and the spirit will be severed from its union with God and become disconnected from the life of God. We have mentioned before that this does not mean that man no longer has a spirit, but that the spirit yields its high position to the soul. When man’s spirit obeys the urge from his "outward man" in the form of ideals and desires, the result is his loss of fellowship with God. This is death. Those who are dead in "offenses and sins" are those who fulfill "the desires of the flesh and of the thoughts" (Eph 2:1, 3).
The living of an unregenerated man is almost entirely under the control of the soul. First, man has the conditions of anxiety, curiosity, joy, pride, compassion, debauchery, delight, astonishment, shame, love, regret, excitement, and happiness. Second, man has ideals, imaginations, superstitions, doubts, suppositions, investigations, inferences, examinations, analyses, reflections, etc. Third, man has the desire to obtain power, riches, social approval, freedom, position, fame, praise, and knowledge. He can be decisive, dependent, courageous, and have endurance; at the same time, he can be fearful, indecisive, independent, stubborn, and opinionated. These are the manifestations of the soul in its three aspects—emotion, mind, and will. Is not man’s life full of these things? However, man’s regeneration does not result from any of these functions. One may repent of offenses, be sorrowful for sin, and resolve to improve with tears; yet this is not salvation. Confession, decision, as well as many other religious feelings are not regeneration. Even the determination of the will, the knowledge of the intellect, and the receptiveness of the mind in deciding to gain that which is good, beautiful, and noble are merely the functions of the soul, while the spirit may remain entirely unmoved. In the matter of salvation, man’s will, emotion, and mind are not the basic or primary items; rather, they are secondary, subordinate. They are servants, not the master. Therefore, regardless whether it is the sufferings of the body, the excitement of the emotion, the demand of the will, or the understanding of the mind working out reforms and improvements, none of these is what the Bible calls being born again. The regeneration in the Bible takes place in a part deeper than man’s body and soul. It is in his spirit that the Holy Spirit imparts God’s life to him.
For this reason every worker for the Lord ought to understand that our natural abilities cannot cause anyone to be born again. The Christian life and work, from the beginning to the end, must not rely on the power of the soul. If they do, all of the fruit will only be in the realm of the soul and will not penetrate deeper into man’s spirit. We must depend on the Holy Spirit to impart God’s life to others.
(Spiritual Man, The (3 volume set), Chapter 4, by Watchman Nee)