In considering who can commit sins that lead to death I wonder who the "brother" is in 1 John 5:16:

If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life—to those who commit sins that do not lead to death. There is sin that leads to death; I do not say that one should pray for that.

Does the word 'brother' mean the same as 'believer'?

I've looked at the comments on this verse regarding sin that leads to death but not seen any reference to seeing his brother doing it.

  • why do people assume that believer has no consequence of sin? The whole epistles and gospels are written to the believers. But I have seen them argue that it was written to unbelievers, in order to avoid the burden of the law. They want to make the grace of God into license to sin.
    – Michael16
    Commented Sep 24, 2021 at 11:13

7 Answers 7


As the "apostle of love," John typically uses a familial term, brother, instead of another more-neutral term such as anyone or another believer, as did Paul in Galatians 6:1, where he said,

"Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted" (NAS, my emphasis).

Notice, however, that Paul also uses a familial term, brothers, in his directive. I draw attention to this, since I'm not playing one apostle against the other in their approaches to dealing with sin in the local assembly of believers. Paul was, like John, a loving apostle!

By the way, James, the brother of our Lord, also used the word anyone in a similar passage:

"Is anyone among you sick? The he must call for the elders of the church and they are to pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another . . ." (5:14-16a, NASB Updated, my emphasis).


Yes, brother does mean the same as believer in 1 John. John uses the term brother because of the believers special relationship with God the Father. All believers, according to John, have been born of God. 1 John 5:1 states

Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who loves the Father loves whoever has been born of him.

A brother cannot commit the sin leading to death because the sin leading to death is a lack of love for the brothers. 1 John 3:14-15 says

14 We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death. 15 Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life residing in him.

Check out my answer to "What is the Sin that Leads to Death in 1 John 5:16"


In John 16:7-11, Jesus outlined the work of the Holy Spirit, when he said:

Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you. And when he is come,he will reprove the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment:

Of sin, because they believe not on me; Of righteousness, because I go to my Father, and ye see me no more; Of judgment, because the prince of this world is judged.

Thus there is only one sin that can't be forgiven - "... they believe not in me". It can't be forgiven because the perpetrators won't have it, and they won't have it because to their rational mind such an idea is either a stumbling block or foolishness.

Jesus said in John 10:9,

I am the door: by me if any man enter in, he shall be saved, and shall go in and out, and find pasture.

The 'brother' in 1 John 5:16 is anyone who has stepped through the door. If he has stepped through the door, then he can be reasoned with in regard to the commandments - God's principles of life for this creation - because they will matter to him. If he hasn't stepped through the door, then he isn't a brother, and your reasoning will be as pearls cast before swine.

What, then, do you do for a non-brother?

Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.

You live the Commandments, which is what the world doesn't do, and why it's in the pickle that it is.


Yes, "brother" here would mean believers. While "brother" can sometimes refer to fellow Jews in some NT cases, the audience determines its applicability. Since John wrote his letters to the church, "brothers" would certainly indicate the believers.

As for what the "sin that leads to death" is, I believe that is asked elsewhere on the site. How that would apply to believers would be the next step after that.

  • 3
    While I agree with your conclusion, your answer is devoid of references; could you 'spruce it up' with a reference which would make a compelling argument? Thank you!
    – Tau
    Commented Nov 2, 2014 at 8:08

"Brother" has to mean Christian in this case, because the "brother" who sins "NOT unto death" is given life if the sin is prayed for. This would not be said of an unbeliever, unless John teaches that unbelievers are given eternal life if we pray for them when we see them sin.

People usually fail to note that even the sin NOT unto death results in death till it is prayed for. ..."he shall ask,& He shall give him LIFE for them that sin not unto death". Death is still the result if it is not dealt with. The "sin unto death" should not even be prayed for. If you take it to simply mean unbelief, then John is teaching us not to pray for unbelievers. The sin unto death is explained in numbers 15 and in Heb.6:4-6 and in Heb.10:26 etc. willful, presumptuous in, & is only a problem for those who are presently alive spiritually.


If we go to the root of the word, brother, in this context (and also in 1 John 3:16), is the word ἀδελφός (transliteration: adelphos).

Here's an outline of it's biblical usage, created by Larry Pierce, the creator of Online Bible (Source):

  1. a brother, whether born of the same two parents or only of the same father or mother

  2. having the same national ancestor, belonging to the same people, or countryman

  3. any fellow or man

  4. a fellow believer, united to another by the bond of affection

  5. an associate in employment or office

  6. brethren in Christ

    A. his brothers by blood

    B. all men

    C. apostles

    D. Christians, as those who are exalted to the same heavenly place

Here is Strong's Definition of it:

ἀδελφός adelphós, ad-el-fos'; from G1 (as a connective particle) and δελφύς delphýs (the womb); a brother (literally or figuratively) near or remote (much like G1):—brother.

Thayer's Greek Lexicon has the following (I like, in particular, point 4):

STRONGS NT 80: ἀδελφός

ἀδελφός, -οῦ, ὁ (from α copulative and δελφύς, from the same womb; cf. ἀγάστωρ) [from Homer down];

  1. a brother (whether born of the same two parents, or only of the same father or the same mother): Matthew 1:2; Matthew 4:18, and often. That 'the brethren of Jesus,' Matthew 12:46, 47 [but WH only in marginal reading]; Matthew 13:55f; Mark 6:3 (in the last two passages also sisters); Luke 8:19; John 2:12; John 7:3; Acts 1:14; Galatians 1:19; 1 Corinthians 9:5, are neither sons of Joseph by a wife married before Mary (which is the account in the Apocryphal Gospels [cf. Thilo, Cod. Apocr. N. T. i. 362f]), nor cousins, the children of Alphæus or Cleophas [i. e. Clopas] and Mary a sister of the mother of Jesus (the current opinion among the doctors of the church since Jerome and Augustine [cf. Bp. Lightfoot's Commentary on Galatians, diss. ii.]), according to that use of language by which ἀδελφός like the Hebrew אָח denotes any blood-relation or kinsman (Genesis 14:16; 1 Samuel 20:29; 2 Kings 10:13; 1 Chronicles 23:22, etc.), but own brothers, born after Jesus, is clear principally from Matthew 1:25 [only in R G]; Luke 2:7 — where, had Mary borne no other children after Jesus, instead of υἱὸν πρωτότοκον, the expression υἱὸν μονογενῆ would have been used, as well as from Acts 1:14, cf. John 7:5, where the Lord's brethren are distinguished from the apostles. See further on this point under Ἰάκωβος, 3. [Cf. B. D. under the word Brother; Andrews, Life of our Lord, pp. 104-116; Bib. Sacr. for 1864, pp. 855-869; for 1869, pp. 745-758; Laurent, N. T. Studien, pp. 153-193; McClellan, note on Matthew 13:55.]
  2. according to a Hebrew use of אָח (Exodus 2:11; Exodus 4:18, etc.), hardly to be met with in secular authors, having the same national ancestor, belonging to the same people, countryman; so the Jews (as the σπέρμα Ἀβραάμ, υἱοἰ Ἰσραήλ, cf. Acts 13:26; [in Deuteronomy 15:3 opposed to ὁ ἀλλότριος, cf. Acts 17:15; Acts 15:12; Philo de septen. § 9 at the beginning]) are called ἀδελφοί: Matthew 5:47; Acts 3:22 (Deuteronomy 18:15); Acts 7:23; 22:5; 28:15, 21; Romans 9:3; in address, Acts 2:29; Acts 3:17; Acts 23:1; Hebrews 7:5.
  3. just as in Leviticus 19:17 the word אָח is used interchangeably with רֵַעַ (but, as Leviticus 19:16, 18 show, in speaking of Israelites), so in the sayings of Christ, Matthew 5:22, 24; Matthew 7:3ff, ἀδελφός is used for ὁ πλησίον to denote (as appears from Luke 10:29ff) any fellow-man — as having one and the same father with others, viz. God (Hebrews 2:11), and as descended from the same first ancestor (Acts 17:26); cf. Epictetus diss. 1, 13, 3.
  4. a fellow-believer, united to another by the bond of affection; so most frequently of Christians, constituting as it were but a single family: Matthew 23:8; John 21:23; Acts 6:3 [Lachmann omits]; Acts 9:30; 11:1; Galatians 1:2; 1 Corinthians 5:11; Philippians 1:14, etc.; in courteous address, Romans 1:13; Romans 7:1; 1 Corinthians 1:10; 1 John 2:7 Rec., and often elsewhere; yet in the phraseology of John it has reference to the new life unto which men are begotten again by the efficiency of a common father, even God: 1 John 2:9ff; 1 John 3:10, 14; etc., cf. 1 John 5:1.
  5. an associate in employment or office: 1 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 1:1; 2 Corinthians 2:13 (12); Ephesians 6:21; Colossians 1:1.
  6. brethren of Christ is used of, a. his brothers by blood; see 1 above. b. all men: Matthew 25:40 [Lachmann brackets]; Hebrews 2:11f [others refer these examples to d.] c. apostles: Matthew 28:10; John 20:17. d. Christians, as those who are destined to be exalted to the same heavenly δόξα (which see, III. 4 b.) which he enjoys: Romans 8:29.

This was an interesting question to research on, thank you!

The answer is: Yes - and no. The term (adelphos) obviously describes a family relationship. What kind of family? Gal 5:10 reads:

Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

So it might be a "fellow disciple". Jesus Christ explained, that he himself decided who is his brother/sister (Mat 12:50):

For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.

There are believers that obviously are not in that family. Jam 2:19 reads:

You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.

Interestingly it is your own responsability who you name a brother. In Mat 18:15-17 Jesus told his disciples:

15 If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. 16 But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ 17 If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

So in fact it is your personal decision who you name a brother (of your family in faith) - as it was and still is Jesus' personal decision who he names brother. (Mat 7:15-23).

  • Welcome to Stack Exchange. We are glad you stopped by and hope you stay. When you have a chance, be sure to check out the site tour and read how this site is a little different than other sites... Your answer seems to relying on Christian theology, which is fine, but what we are really looking for is what the author had in mind. Thus, you need to explicitly connect these passages to 1 John to show how they influenced John.
    – ThaddeusB
    Commented Nov 1, 2015 at 22:47
  • There were just 2 previous answers that really answered the question about who John meant with "brother", one of it even without scriptures. So why then is MY answer off-topic and even receives a downvote? John was the disciple that "Jesus loved" (Joh 13:23). And James was Jesus' brother. James and John obviously also worked together as elders in Jerusalem. I'ld say these two sources are vital to understand John. Further more the whole letter of 1 John talks about the distinction of true fellows versus "not belonging to us" - even within the same church. See 1 John 2:19.
    – ftw
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 12:51
  • The other answers are poor too - that is my they have a score of zero - so don't use them as a guide to what a good answer looks like. FYI, two of them have a downvote which was balanced out by an upvote for net zero.... To answer your question directly, the others all state what "brother" means in context - they don't support it well, so they are poor answers, but they do state it. Your answer states what brother is based on theology in general and doesn't even mention a Johnanine passage. The way this site works, we don't assume different authors mean the same thing in their writings.
    – ThaddeusB
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 15:26
  • Well, if this is "how the site works", then you won't have people with different approaches stay here. This is just "I don't LIKE the answer". When there's no explanation in the Johannine Scriptures about the term "brother", then it's obviously the right thing to look into the explanations of friends and fellows. That information was presented.
    – ftw
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 16:34
  • No, it is not "I don't LIKE the answer" as I personally have no problem with the theology/approach. However, the community decided that BH.SE is not about "Bible Study" since it is open to people of all persuasions. As such, I am trying to help you understand what the site wants, not what I personally want. Please see the link I provided in the first post which explains the difference between a religious site and this site.
    – ThaddeusB
    Commented Nov 2, 2015 at 17:03

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