The words “soul” and “spirit” are found throughout the Bible, each occurring hundreds of times in the Old and New Testaments. The Hebrew word translated “soul” means a breathing creature, one in which life is present, whether physical life or mental life. The Greek word in the New Testament is similar. In its most basic sense, the word “soul” means “life,” either physical or eternal. Jesus asks what it profits a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul, referring to his eternal life (Matthew 16:26). Both Old and New Testaments reiterate that we are to love God completely, with the whole “soul” which refers to everything that is in us that makes us alive (Deuteronomy 6:4-5; Mark 12:30). Whenever the word “soul” is used, it can refer to the whole person, whether physically alive or in the afterlife.
The word “spirit” is used to denote something different in Scripture, although both the Hebrew and Greek words translated “spirit” also have the concept of breath or wind at their roots. We understand the difference by looking at the context of the verses that refer to the spirit of man. Unlike the soul, which is alive both physically and eternally, the spirit can be either alive, as in the case of believers, (1 Peter 3:18), or dead as unbelievers are (Colossians 2:13; Ephesians 2:4-5). The spiritual part of believers in Jesus Christ is that which responds to the things that come from the Spirit of God, understanding and discerning them spiritually. The spiritually dead perceive the things of the Spirit to be “foolishness” because, in his spiritually dead conditions, he does not have the ability to discern the things of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:12-14). The spirit is that part of us that is enabled by God to know and worship Him, the part of humanity that “connects” with God, who Himself is Spirit (John 4:24).
While the two words are often used interchangeably, the primary distinction between soul and spirit in man is that the soul is the animate life, or the seat of the senses, desires, affections, and appetites. The spirit is that part of us that connects, or refuses to connect, to God. Our spirits relate to His Spirit, either accepting His promptings and conviction, thereby proving that we belong to Him (Romans 8:16) or resisting Him and proving that we do not have spiritual life (Acts 7:51).