It is interesting, to say the least, that the term for “double-minded” only appears twice in Scripture, and both within the letter of James. The first occurrence deals with those who are subjected to various trials (see James 1:2-8). The point of James in this section is to encourage the faint-hearted in recognizing the purpose of such trials. Trials are akin to the testing of the genuineness of one’s faith (v.2), but what such trials produce is endurance—that quality every true Christian must have to reach the finish line and inherit the glories to come. Endurance itself produces a Christian who is “…perfect and complete, lacking in nothing,” indicating that the result is a mature Christian who comports themselves under trials in such a way that they actually grow in their faith, rather than move backwards.
It is in light of these trials that James then makes the statement in vv. 5-8, “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind. For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.” Thus, if one is lacking the wisdom to navigate through trials, he is to simply ask the Lord with a heart of submission and faith. The doubter, as James calls him, will receive no wisdom, but will remain as one who is continually at odds within himself.
The extent of this double-mindedness though is not in part, but in full. Note that James says he will be unstable in all his ways. In much the same way then, the portrait of the double-minded man that James gives us is a rather bleak one. The Greek term he uses to speak of this man’s instability is ἀκατάστατος, which speaks of a never-ending state of restlessness and turmoil. He is, in other words, the epitome of what it means to be confused in all his faculties.
In intent, motive, thought, desire, speech, and deed, and in both his character and feelings—he is always hovering between two worlds. The state of his soul is never at peace, and he never truly learns to trust in God and His promises. Like the Israelites of old who straddled the fence between worship of Baal and Yahweh, he continually wavers between two opinions. He is quite literally unable to make up his mind between what is good and true, and what is evil and false. In short, his doubts render his faith nearly useless in the midst of his trials.
James is quite clear in what he is stating here: the man who is unstable in all of his ways will not come to find the wisdom which comes from above, which is “…first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy” (Ja. 3:8). His instability becomes a detriment to his maturity in the faith, yet ultimately, produces one who will fail under the tutelage of trials. In a very real sense, the implicit warning being given is that the double-minded man may just turn out to be the man who will not endure to the end.
This is particularly why James picks back up on this reality in v. 12 by saying, “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” It should be relatively clear to the reader to understand that if one is double-minded and unstable in all his ways, and he perpetually remains in such a state, there is cause for real concern over the state of his soul. If trials produce endurance, and endurance produces a mature Christian who perseveres to the end—one who lacks such qualities may indeed prove to be of the seed which falls on rocky ground who falls away when trouble and persecution comes, or the seed which becomes choked out by the thorns of the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth (Matt. 13:20-21).
The second usage of double-minded comes in James 4:8, where the apostle writes, “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” The immediate context of this usage is rather bleak as well, as barrage after barrage of rebuke is given to the one who is carnally-minded, or rather, the one who is ruled by his flesh. Such a man is driven by his insatiable lusts, so much so, that he becomes guilty of murder. He is filled with envy and covetousness to the extent that he now wages war among the people of God—and yet he is never moved to a place of actually asking God for his requests. If and when he does pray to the Lord, he asks with wrong motives, only asking for that which will fulfill his insatiable pleasures. In perhaps the most scathing section of his rebuke, James calls them adulteresses, friends of this world, enemies of God, and proud-hearted people whom God opposes.
The only remedy at hand? Submission to God, resisting the temptations of the devil, drawing near to the Lord, purifying their double-minded hearts, and embracing a state of utter misery as they mourn over their sin, and humble themselves before the Lord. In a word, the solution, is repentance. By repentance, I simply mean a change of heart and mind, which ultimately leads to a change in direction. In this, the double-minded man would put away his sin, lean upon God and His Word all the more, and obey the Scripture’s commands in the place of his sin. It is not enough to merely stop committing the specific sins James in indicting them for.
The intent of repentance is that it leads to substantive life change, one which shows that former beliefs, motives, and actions have changed to match God’s clear standard in Scripture. Think of Paul’s example for the one who steals in Eph. 4:28, “He who steals must steal no longer; but rather he must labor, performing with his own hands what is good, so that he will have something to share with one who has need.” The thief is not repentance if he merely ceases to steal. He is not even repentant if he stops stealing and gets a job. The time repentance is clearly visible is when the thief puts away stealing, works unto the glory of God, and develops a heart of generosity. By every inward and outward appearance, his heart has changed, as he no longer covets and steals, but works with his own hands so he may freely give to those in need. That is repentance.
Far too often, many see repentance as a means to express their sorrow, or even go a step further by seeking forgiveness—yet repentance involves far more than mere lip-service. Repentance is visible to all, and you never have to wonder if the repentant one has truly repented. The detriment to a false outlook on repentance is much the same as James expressed earlier—in that such a person will indeed be unstable in all their ways. What’s more than this is that if left unchecked, the unrepentant one will always drag down others with them.
When we look to these realities simultaneously, there ought to be a clear divide between a person who genuinely seeks repentance, and the double-minded man. The repentant one is willing to let go of their own pleasures and especially their sin, for the sake of following Christ. The double-minded man is not. The repentant Christian, though perhaps in a constant state of struggle, is always seeking to put away sin. The unrepentant one does not. They minimize, conceal, and indulge in their sins. The stable Christian is one who continually looks to the promises of God and seeks to obey the commands of God. The unstable, professing Christian is one who is considered nominal, at best. They may, in other words, talk a good talk to the undiscerning, but they will inevitably reveal to all how shallow, and perhaps even false, their faith in God truly is.
When we look at all of these things in conjunction, it is little wonder then why James invites the reader to ask if they are merely hearers of the word, or doers. Many may claim some semblance of faith in Christ. Even the demons believe that God is One—and yet they shudder. In substance, there are real, tangible differences between the man ruled by his double-mindedness, and the man ruled by the Spirit, who reveals to us the mind of God. The point of this is not to say that the one who doubts or proves to be double-minded in a given moment is necessarily an unbeliever. Christians can and will fall prey to this double-mindedness at points in their faith, especially early on.
Rather, it is the one who perpetually stays in such a place that runs the risk of proving that their so-called faith is in vain. In other words, the “double-minded Christian” is an oxymoron. Much like the Christian who seeks to serve two masters, the perpetual state of double-mindedness is at odds with the Christian faith. These are two different realms, so to speak, that never intersect. In short, double-mindedness is sin, and sin that needs to be put to death quickly, lest the genuineness of our faith is tested and found altogether absent.
It is here that the intersect of faith and works comes into play. It is not that our works save us—but that a genuine faith will produce such works that prove that we are genuinely in Christ. One can say all day long that they believe the facts of the gospel and even agree to those facts necessary for salvation, but unless there is a love of such truths, such words will ring hollow on the Day of Judgment. It is not my goal to cause some endless series of introspection for those whose security for salvation truly rests in Christ. However, it is my goal to say that if you find yourself described here as the double-minded man, who is unstable in all his ways, that you must, with the utmost sobriety, examine yourself to see if you are in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5; 2 Pet. 1:10-11). If you are, the path forward is clear: God gives exceeding grace to the humble, but opposes the proud (Ja. 4:6).