This is the fourth of a series. For the introduction to the series, click here.
For most of my life I was taught that man is a three-part being – body, soul and spirit. When I went to college, I was exposed to the other main viewpoint, that man is a two-part being – flesh and spirit. I took hold of the second one because it made more sense than the first, but now I am not so sure. I think both are lacking. My main purpose today is not to outline a different explanation but to show how a wrong view of Paul’s lists leads people astray in this area, as we have discussed in the previous posts.
Now may the God of peace Himself sanctify you completely; and may your whole spirit, soul and body be preserved blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. (I Thessalonians 5:23)
Did you know that this one verse is the only place in the Bible where the words “body,” “soul” and “spirit” are found together in the Bible? I was never taught that either when I was growing up. Compare this verse with I Corinthians 6:20: “For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s.” Is Paul telling us we don’t have to glorify God in our souls because he leaves it out? Hardly. Once again, in both of these verses Paul is just giving us examples, not a be-all, end-all list.
Man is a spiritual being. The Bible is very clear on that. Genesis tells us that God breathed the breath of life into man, and he became a living soul. We are made in God’s image and will one day stand before Him in judgment. That has to be our starting point when we discuss the nature of man.
The trichotomist (three-part) view of man (or at least the way I learned it) is flawed, mainly because of the terminology involved, which is forced upon the view because most of its adherents (that I have heard teach) base it on that one verse. The idea that the body is evil is a false idea that arises from Gnosticism, an ancient lie that the apostles Paul and John address at length in their epistles. When we sin, it is not our body that sins, it is our rebellious spiritual nature that is against God. Let me illustrate. God made our bodies to desire food and drink in order to live. It is man’s wicked nature that causes him to commit the sins of gluttony and drunkenness to ostensibly meet those needs. God created man with a desire to reproduce. It is not the body but the sinful spiritual part of man that chooses to meet those desires with adultery, prostitution and other sexual sins. It is more helpful and more Biblically correct to think of the physical body as a morally neutral casing through which spiritual deeds, either good or bad, are carried out.
It is fair to point out, however, that Paul does frequently use the word “flesh” to describe our sinful nature. We as believers know from the Scriptures and from experience that not all of our being is made new when we are born again. We have to understand there are two senses of the word “flesh.” It’s the same word both in English and Greek, but it is clearly describing two different concepts. Let’s look at a couple of passages from Romans 8: “For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (verses 3-4) Let’s compare that with verse 8: “So then, those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” (NKJV)
There's a lot in verses 3 and 4, and I don't pretend to understand it all, but there's one thing that's clear: God was pleased with Christ's birth, life and death. Christ took on a physical body like ours, lived on earth, died in our place, then rose to life again. He had a physical body, but He was not a sinner. Gnosticism is a direct attack on Christ's substitutionary redemption, and we as believers should be very careful in our terminology to keep such ideas out of our teaching.
Like I said at the beginning, I’m not really sure what to believe about the different parts of the nature of man. I’m OK with that. I don’t pretend to have everything figured out. The main problem I have is when people take the one verse in Thessalonians listed above and build a theology around that, especially when they include the gnostic concepts of man’s physical body being the source of his evil nature. That’s a teaching we need to avoid.