Soul and Spirit - J.N. Darby

Mr. M.

Dear brother,

I reply briefly to your questions, according to my capacity.

In general "soul" and "spirit" are almost equivalent, being used in a somewhat vague way in contrast with the body, to signify the spiritual, immortal, responsible and intelligent part of man. In the passage which you quote, the apostle was taking care, it seems to me, to extend sanctification to the whole man, designating for this purpose everything that could be distinguished in him. No doubt it was the will of the Spirit that we should distinguish these things in ourselves. The difference between them seems to me to be this. There is the body, which is servant of the intelligence and the will, for good and evil, and the channel of impressions of what is outside of ourselves, the vessel and instrument of our feelings. There is no need for me to expand on that. The soul is natural life, where the affections and all vital action which distinguish us from vegetable existence have their seat; it supposes a will, and more or less of intelligence. Thus a beast has a soul — an inferior soul no doubt in all respects, but it has one; it loves, it knows, it wills; I do not say an immortal soul, but a soul. But it says that God breathed the breath of life into man's nostrils, and man became a living soul: that is what distinguishes man essentially from beasts. God caused all sorts of animals to spring out of the dust, to be living beings, according to His supreme will, but never did He Himself breathe the spirit of life into their nostrils. That is why we are "the offspring of God" (Acts 17). Now we may lift ourselves up in consequence of this, to make ourselves independent, reason about God, wish to be like Him, or, on the contrary, receive communications made to us by His Spirit, feel our responsibility to submit ourselves to Him, be subject in will, that is to say, obey from the heart. To be occupied with His thoughts, to receive them as being submissive to Him — that is the sanctification of the Spirit. The soul's affections may have self for centre, or they may be ordered according to God and thus be sanctified. Often as I have said, the spirit, the point of contact of the soul with God, is included in the expression "soul", since it is by the breath or spirit of life that man became a living soul. The heart is the soul viewed on the side of the affections, and often the affections themselves; as we say; "with all his heart", or "he has plenty of heart", and so on. The spirit is the soul viewed on the side of its intelligence, by which it is placed under responsibility. If I view the soul on this side, it will itself be called my "spirit"; if on the side of the affections, it will be called my "heart".

In conscience there are two parts: the feeling of responsibility towards someone to whom one is under obligation, and the knowledge of good and evil. The first part existed in innocence, and exists everywhere where the consciousness of relationship which places us in the position of duty subsists. The knowledge of good and evil, which makes us feel in ourselves the difference between good things and evil things, fitting or unfitting things — we have acquired this by the fall: terrible knowledge, and an increase of responsibility for a sinner who is already responsible, but a thing that is necessary to hold him under restraint and give him the true sense of his responsibility.

Understanding hardly differs from spirit. It is that faculty of the soul by which it thinks and judges, discerns and determines inwardly: I do not say that by which it is determined — that, alas, is another thing. In Ephesians 1:18 it says "heart" in the original; in Romans 7:23,25, "understanding" or "mind". I think that "pollution of spirit" (2 Corinthians 7:1) is more defilement in the thoughts, in contrast with the actions of the body, and from which we ought to be purified as much as from actions.

I do not enter into metaphysical questions as to the difference between the soul of men and that of beasts. You will find that that of beasts is alien to abstractions, and that men are capable of moral affections which are more than feeling and instinct.

As for 1 John 3, you will notice that John treats subjects in an abstract manner and in relation to the essential character of what he is speaking of. If he speaks of God, he is not occupied with His counsels, the plans of His wisdom (as Paul is, according to the gift that was given to him), but rather with what God is. God is light, He is love, that is what characterizes His nature. Thus John presents to us man as being naturally in contrast with that: darkness has no communion with light, he who hates is of the devil; if one loves, if one practises righteousness, one is a child of God. This therefore is what characterizes the two families which the apostle is signalizing in the passage that you quote: sin, and the practice of sin, characterize him who is a child of the devil; it is his nature according to flesh. There is opposition between that and God. He who can be characterized by these words, "he sins", has not known God, for God is entirely contrary to that. Now, he who is born of someone partakes in his nature, is characterized by the same nature, in such a way that he who is born of God cannot sin, because he is born of God. It is not progress here, it is a thing that is true of whoever is born of Him, in virtue of His nature. It is a necessity of nature: God's seed abides in him, he cannot sin. That is what the essential character of this nature is. Now if we analyse man, we know that the flesh remains in him, and that this flesh is not born of God [i.e., the reprehensible mind of the flesh - Editor], only the new life comes from Him. It is by this that we partake of the divine nature; but the old man, who remains as an adversary in spite of ourselves, is not morally ourselves. It is neither our will, nor our judgement, nor our desire, nor what we are in virtue of what constitutes our active and reflective nature. It is no longer myself, but the sin that dwelleth in me [see Romans 7:17 - Editor]: sad company, but sad because it is contrary to all that I am, to all that I love, to all that I find to be my joy in God, and that in virtue of the nature that characterizes me, and which God has communicated to me to be really I myself; while I put my flesh to death as being opposed to this "I myself". Now John is occupied with the principle of this life as characterizing and being the Christian. As a Christian as one who is born of God, he is not that from which he has been delivered. As born of God, he cannot sin: it would be contrary to his nature. When one understands that the apostle is speaking of the essential character of that which is his subject, all difficulty disappears.

Peace be to you, dear brother. I am writing to you from - -where our labouring brethren of the neighbourhood are meeting together to study the Word of God.

We have been profitably studying what a sectarian is; then the laying on of hands, briefly, but, I think, with some increase of light and we have read the greater part of Luke with great interest, for me least, and I hope for others. I rejoice in the blessing that is taking place around you, dear brother, more than I rejoice in my own; for although I bless God for His grace which makes me happy, certainly I love the members of Christ more than myself; their blessing and their joy are my own life and my own joy. 

Greet all the brethren very affectionately on my behalf. I had thought of paying them a visit. Up to the present, I have been prevented from doing so, but I have on my heart to do it; I am only awaiting the moment, but I think a certain time will elapse before I can put this project into effect. May God grant us to commend one another to our God who is so faithful, so full of tenderness: I do so for you and for all the brethren. Thank God we are happy in our meeting, and there is plenty of good in these regions: the brethren are in peace and happy together, and other souls are being brought by grace to enjoy blessing. Peace be to you. - - - greets you, he is awaiting your reply.

Yours very affectionately.