by A.E. Knoch

The word "spiritual" has often served to conceal the lack of a real, scriptural basis for a teaching. The church is said to be "spiritual Israel," and the prophesies concerning that nation are "spiritually applied" to the present in the chapter headings of the Authorized Version. The millennium is explained away by making it "spiritual." We even hear of "spiritual death," although all death must, of necessity, be utterly lacking in spirituality. It is evident that, in many cases, our  western minds have been bewildered by figures of speech, and we have tried to cover our  confusion by calling things "spiritual" to escape unbelief. Judging from the past we should be very   careful in the use of this term in the interpretation of the Scriptures. Let us test it carefully lest it lead us astray by its elusiveness.


This innocent-looking phrase practically repudiates God's whole prophetic program. All that He  promised to His people is filched from them and "applied" to others on the plea that it must be understood "spiritually." just as if there will be nothing spiritual in the coming Kingdom! In that  day Jehovah will put a new spirit within them (Ezek.36:26). He will pour out His spirit upon the  house of Israel (Ezek.39:29). Indeed, He will pour out His spirit upon all flesh (Joel 2:28, Acts   2:17). The only spiritual Israel known to God's Word is that which will be found in that Kingdom.  Yet this phrase is used to do away with it! They will be far more spiritual than is the church which  seeks to displace them by means of this subterfuge.

     On all sides today this idea is  distorting the testimony of the church, and engaging it with that which is on the earth, not that   which is above. It would seem that nothing could more effectively keep it from entertaining its real spiritual blessings among the celestials (Eph.1:3) than this notion that Israel has utterly failed, so that God's promises will not be fulfilled, except in a "spiritual" way to the church which takes over what they have forfeited. The worst effect is that it prevents the saints from entering into the truth for today. The church is not literal Israel, nor figurative Israel, and, least of all "spiritual" Israel. It is the literal Israel of the future that will be spiritual. Let us not get the idea that "spiritual" denotes figurative. What is really meant is that the church is figurative Israel. But "spiritual" is a much more subtle term, implying, as it does, that Israel was carnal and we are spiritual, which contains enough truth to confuse and mislead the saints.


Not only is a literal kingdom looked upon as "carnal," but the millennium is decried as a most unspiritual idea which can find only a "spiritual" fulfillment in the history of the church. What is really meant, of course, is a figurative fulfillment, but the word spiritual is usually preferred, for it stamps believers in a literal millennium as lacking in spiritual discernment, if they are not downright carnal. It is this implication in the word "spiritual" which makes it such a favorite weapon to destroy faith in the promises of God.

     I am reminded of my own experience at the very beginning of my new life. The head of a school of theology wished to have a pamphlet printed showing how unspiritual and carnal the theory of a future literal kingdom is, according to the Scriptures. He had given the references, but feared that few of his readers would take the trouble to turn them up. So I was asked to put in the full text in each case. As I was very eager to settle this point for myself, I not only supplied the texts, but studied them carefully to see if they proved his position. As a result I became fully convinced that he was mistaken, judging alone from his own evidence. As I now recall, he misused this word spiritual" in a most unspiritual way.


In my earliest efforts to solve the problem of the death which overtook Adam when he sinned, I fell back on a phrase then common among Bible expositors, that is, "spiritual death," in contrast to "physical death." Later, when I sought to avoid unsound, unscriptural expressions, I was forced to drop these non-scriptural phrases. Then I saw how misleading they were. The effect of Adam's sin was not confined to his spirit, and his relationship to God. It vitally affected his physical frame. He became mortal, in the active sense of dying, and this he has transmitted to the race, which accounts for all disease and sin as well as alienation from God. Adam and his posterity have been physically dying ever since. It is true that he became figuratively dead to God, yet the figure is not founded on his spirit alone, but upon his future literal death, which included spirit, soul and body.

How confusing this manner of speaking may be, may be seen in the death of our Lord. He died physically when He commended His spirit into the hands of His Father (Luke 23:46). So it is with all flesh, for it has no life apart from the spirit. Literal death always includes both flesh and spirit, for the flesh returns to the soil when the spirit returns to God. The converse is true also. Death limited to one of man's components is impossible, or figurative. The fact that unbelievers are figuratively dead to God is based upon their literal death. They are not dead to men, spiritually or otherwise. They are simply so oblivious of the Deity as if they were literally in the grave.

The complement terms "spiritual life" and "physical life" are also non-scriptural and unsound, for they imply that there is life apart from spirit. It is not easy for us to avoid them because we are not accustomed to the language of figures which is so freely used in the Scriptures. it is necessary for us to break with these misleading expressions, however, for it is practically impossible to grasp the truth as to death and life so long as we harbor them.

"In the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die" (Gen.2:17 A.V.). In my early studies in the Scriptures this passage caused me much concern, for it was very plain that Adam did {not die that day. I was forced to accept the only explanation offered me at the time, that the death was "spiritual." So, I was told, all of Adam's descendants are also "spiritually" dead until they pass out of death into life (John 5:24). They are dead in trespasses and sins (Eph.2:1 A.V.). At that time I knew so little of the function of spirit, that the manifest absurdity of "spiritual" death was not apparent to me. But when I learned that life is the product of spirit, and death is due to the lack of spirit, it dawned upon me that there can be no such thing as "spiritual" death, for death is the most unspiritual thing in the universe. The Scriptures never use such an expression. Neither should we confuse life with consciousness. An unconscious tree has life.

We cannot insist that only the spirit of Adam died, for in humanity it is the spirit that imparts and sustains life. The body has no life apart from it. Withdraw the spirit, and the whole man is dead. Adam did not die that day. The Hebrew is quite clear, if taken literally. "In the day you eat from it, to die shall you be dying" (CV). Adam became mortal that very day, just as all who descend from him undergo the dying process.

     It does not cease when one believes. Faith does not stop dying, it does not clothe with  immortality. So the death that came to Adam, and that which characterizes the unbeliever as  distinct from the believer, cannot be the same, and should not be called by the same name.  Neither is spiritual. Adam's was literal. The sinner's is figurative. just as he comes out of darkness  into light, so he proceeds out of death into life. The process is a spiritual one because it is wrought  by God's Spirit. Both certainly should not be called "spiritual" when one is due to the absence of spirit.


There is not nearly so much objection to the phrase "spiritual life," because life must come from  spirit. Yet it is worthy of notice that the Scriptures never use this expression. To the Eastern  mind it is tautological like wet rain, for there can be no life, even that possessed by the   unbeliever, without spirit. We are so unaccustomed to the bold figures of the inspired records that we hesitate to use them. The figure, "into life," is all that is needed to convey the thought, just  as "into light" does not need to be explained as "spiritual light." When we believe it is like coming   out of darkness into light. It is not coming from one kind of light into another. And it is like proceeding out of death into life. It is not proceeding out of literal life into spiritual life.


The use of the word "spiritual" in place of figurative has given rise to the idea that nothing corporeal can be spiritual. That this is not the case is evident from the Scriptures concerning the resurrection body. It is called a spiritual body (1 Cor.15:44). If we should say that we were roused and vivified spiritually in Christ, this may suggest that the spirit alone was involved. But rousing cannot take place without both body and spirit, for it comes only as a combination of the two.

Vivification is always a "spiritual" act, because it is altogether the result of spirit, which alone gives life. We cannot say that we were vivified "spiritually" in Christ (Eph.2:5), or that our bodies are now vivified "spiritually" by God's Spirit which makes its home in us (Rom.8:11), in contrast to our future vivification, whenever that may be, for that must of necessity be even more spiritual, for our very bodies will then become spiritual. What confusion is created by this word!

The difference between our vivification in the past and in the future is not that the former is spiritual and the latter unspiritual, but that the one in the past was figurative and the one in the future will be literal. The past is a matter of faith in the operation of God. The future will not require faith, for it will be a blessed and glorious experience, which will thrill our very being with life so abundant and exultant that our hearts will overflow with thanksgiving and praise to God. Moreover, the life will no longer be hid, as it is at present, but manifest in us to all the world. Now this is not the case. We wait for Christ. Whenever He, Who is our Life, should be manifested, then, and not before, shall we be manifested with Him in glory.

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