How Is Preaching Different From Motivational Speaking?

What’s the difference between preaching and motivational speaking? A lot of what passes for preaching today is more like spiritualized motivational speaking. But preaching should be more than self-help in church clothing.

So what is it that sets a sermon apart from any other speech?

I believe two things are foundational to every single sermon that set it apart, making it different than all other kinds of communication.

A sermon should be Bible-based and Christ-centered.

Let me explain what I mean and why.


A sermon needs to be Bible-based. In other words, your sermon should be based on what you see in the Bible.

If you’re preaching about anything else, that’s not a sermon.

Let me give you three quick reasons why every sermon should be Bible-based.

1. The Bible Is the Inspired, Inerrant Word of God.

If you don’t believe the Bible is inspired by God, you shouldn’t be preaching.

As the Bible says in 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”

All scripture is inspired and breathed out by God, and it’s useful for teaching everybody everything that we need to be fully equipped followers of Jesus.

2. The Bible Commands Us to Preach the Bible.

If we believe the Bible is inspired by God, and the Bible commands us to preach the Bible, then we should preach the Bible.

Paul continues with this immediately after 2 Timothy 3:16–17 . In our Bibles today, we see a chapter break there, but in the original writing, it was just one long letter. There was no chapter break. So the beginning of 2 Timothy 4 is connected to the end of 2 Timothy 3.

Second Timothy 4:1–2 says, “I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.”

So Paul says to Timothy, “The Bible is the inspired Word of God, so therefore, preach the Bible.” And Paul’s command to Timothy applies to all pastors still today.

We need to preach the Word whether it’s popular or not, whether people are receptive to it or not, whether it’s culturally acceptable or not. Our calling as preachers is to faithfully preach the Word.

3. The Bible Keeps Us Grounded.

Paul still wasn’t finished with his instruction to Timothy. In 3:16–17 he said, “The Bible is the inspired Word of God.” Then he said, “Preach the word” (4:1–2). And in 4:3, Paul continues, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

Paul is essentially saying that the Bible keeps us grounded in the truth.

You need to keep preaching the Bible because there’s going to come a time, believe it or not, where people are just going to listen to whatever sounds good to their itching ears, whatever person is giving a motivational talk, has the most charisma, or says things like, “Live your own truth.” They’ll follow teachers who say whatever sounds good to them.

People are going to start wandering off and following these other preachers and teachers, and they’re no longer going to listen and follow the truth of God’s Word.

We need to preach the Bible because (1) it’s the inspired Word of God, (2) the Bible commands us to preach the Bible, and (3) it keeps us grounded in the truth of God’s word instead of wandering off into other false myths and teachings.

The first distinguishing mark of preaching is that it is Bible-based.


The second distinguishing mark of preaching is that it is Christ-centered.

For over 2,000 years, Christians have had one single message with millions of applications. We call it the gospel.

The gospel is simply the good news of Jesus, who he is, what he did, and how he paid the price for our sins.

It’s the center point of all Christianity. It is the message that we preach. I could say a lot about this subject, but let me just give you two quick reasons why every sermon should be centered on Christ.

1. The Gospel Helps Us Interpret the Bible.

If all of our preaching is Bible-based, the gospel helps us understand how to properly interpret what the Bible tells us, because all Scripture is fulfilled in Jesus.

We see this in the story of right after Jesus was resurrected. He’s walking on the road to Emmaus and he runs into two of his disciples. For whatever reason, they don’t recognize him.

They’re walking and talking about all the events that just happened, how Jesus was crucified and now he’s no longer in the grave. And Jesus is just listening, pretending like he doesn’t know what’s going on.

But then, Jesus interjects. He basically says, “Obviously, this man you’re speaking of, this Jesus character, was the Messiah, the one God promised would come.”

And then we read in Luke 24:27 , “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” We can’t miss the point of this passage. This is huge! It’s how Jesus interprets the Bible.

Beginning with Moses (the first books of the Bible) all the way through the Prophets (the entire Old Testament), Jesus walked through and said, “Here are the things that were written about me.”

All of the Old Testament foreshadows and is fulfilled in Jesus, and Jesus pointed that out to us himself.

So the proper way to understand Scripture, according to Jesus, is to see it as being fulfilled through Jesus.

If we’re not preaching in a way that is gospel-centered, looking at our Bible and trying to interpret and apply it through the lens of who Jesus is and what Jesus accomplished for us in his death, burial and resurrection, then we miss the point. We’re not properly interpreting and applying Scripture.

We see Scripture more clearly when we see it through the gospel.

2. The Early Church Preached the Gospel.

When you look at the sermons of the early church and all the preaching that we see in the New Testament, it is all preaching one message: the gospel.

In the book of Acts, we see a small group of 120 believers, and all of a sudden, something happens. That little group of 120 spreads to thousands of people, across multiple cities, across the entire Roman empire, and eventually throughout the world.

How did that happen?


Preaching what?

Preaching the gospel.

Just look throughout the book of Acts and you’ll see proof of this everywhere.

The first sermon in the book of Acts happens in chapter 2 on the day of Pentecost when Peter preaches to a great crowd of people.

What does he preach? He preaches the gospel.

Later when the Jewish religious leaders are getting angry at the disciples of Jesus, why are they upset? Acts 4:3 says they were ”greatly annoyed because they were teaching the people and proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection from the dead.” In other words, they were proclaiming the gospel, the good news that Jesus rose from the dead and through him you can too.

Then, after the disciples were beaten and released from prison with the warning to never preach the gospel again, what do they do? Acts 5:42 says, “And every day, in the temple and from house to house, they did not cease teaching and preaching that the Christ is Jesus.”

All throughout Acts, I could go chapter by chapter and we could see all the sermons of people like Philip, Paul and Peter, and in every message they’re preaching the gospel.

In every message, the reason why they are preaching is not just to teach people the Bible. It’s not just to teach people to be good. It’s not just to teach people what’s right and what’s wrong. They preach to tell people the good news about Jesus, who he is, what he has done and why it matters for us.

Our preaching needs to be Christ-centered because (1) the gospel helps us interpret Scripture properly, and (2) the gospel is the reason why we preach. It’s the motivation behind everything we do. It’s the point of Christianity, and that’s why it was in every early church.


Let’s think for a second about some of the topics we preach about, and how a gospel connection helps us understand it on a deeper level.

Say you’re preaching a sermon about love.

We love not just because love is good, makes us all feel warm and fuzzy, and is the right thing to do. We love because God first loved us. He loved us enough to send his son to die for us. There’s no greater love than that.

Maybe you’re preaching about joy.

We don’t just preach about joy so you can be happy and feel good. It’s deeper than that. We have joy because Jesus came and conquered Satan, sin and death. The battle has already been won, so we can celebrate that.

If you’re preaching about forgiveness ask, “Why should we forgive other people?”

We don’t just forgive people because it’s the right thing to do or frees us from bitterness. We forgive people because God has forgiven us through Jesus.

The gospel is more than just an altar call or something you tack on to the end of your message. The gospel is the message.


What separates preaching from just another motivational speech?

Preaching is Bible-based and Christ-centered.

All good, faithful preaching needs these two things. If not, your sermon is no different than another speech.

Preaching should be based in the Bible and centered on Christ.

Read more from Brandon Hilgemann »

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