In his description of the new heaven and new earth, John refers to several glorious blessings that God’s people will experience. In Revelation 21:6 he mentions one in particular. It is God himself who declares: “To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment.”
Why doesn’t he simply say, “to the one who believes”? Why “thirst”? In fact, this isn’t the only time this imagery is used. In Revelation 22:17 we read this: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who desires take the water of life without price.”
So here we have two words used: “thirsts” and “desires.” His point is that saving faith or belief is more than a merely intellectual agreement with the truth of the gospel. Saving faith, the belief that leads to eternal life, is the thirsting of the soul and the desiring of the soul for the satisfaction that only Christ can bring. If you prefer the “beverages” of the world to the life-giving water of God himself, you will never know eternal life.
No one in their right mind prefers hell to heaven. But many prefer anything to God. If I’ve learned anything from John Piper it is that everyone is thirsty in the sense that all people long for and desire for their souls the deepest satisfaction possible. But unbelief is the preference of the soul for worldly pleasures and carnal joys in the place of God himself. God gives eternal life and soul-satisfying joy to those who long for and yearn for and deeply desire him above all else. When we read that God will give to the thirsty soul the water of life he means far more than simply prolonged existence. It isn’t so much the length of life but the quality of life that is in view. It is life characterized by joy and delight and satisfaction and fascination and exultation in the beauty of God and all he is for us in Jesus.
But tragically the darkened mind of the unbeliever is at enmity with God. The unregenerate heart desires replacements for God rather than the refreshment that God himself provides. To the unregenerate, God doesn’t taste good. He is at best bland, and at worst bitter. They see him as a threat to their joy rather than as its fulfillment. And so they eat and drink from everything the world has to offer, insanely thinking that it will bring them the happiness their hearts desire.
And would you notice how much it costs: it is “without payment”! You can’t pay God for the water of life. You only have to thirst for it. You can’t bargain with God. You can’t trade for this water. It isn’t up for sale or auction. It’s a gift to those who thirst for it.
Your thirst doesn’t purchase the water. Your thirst doesn’t merit the water. Thirst is not a work but simply another way of referring to faith. To be thirsty in the sense meant here is to be desperate and empty and persuaded that no one can satisfy except God alone. The water of life is free to those who thirst for it, for those who come empty handed and say, “God, fill me with yourself. Satisfy me with your beauty. Enthrall me with your glory. In your presence is the fullness of joy and at your right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16:11).”
But wait a minute! If we have to fulfill a condition before we can drink of this water, that is to say, if we must thirst in order to drink, how can it be said that it is given to us “without payment”? In other words, how does one fulfill a condition for receiving grace without earning grace? Part of the answer is that “when God’s grace is promised based on a condition, that condition is also a work of God’s grace” (Piper, Future Grace, 79). Or again, “God graciously enables the conditions that he requires” (235). The water of life is given “without cost” because it is God himself who graciously provokes and elicits the “thirst” as the condition on which the water is bestowed.
Thus I would argue that to believe in Christ alone for the forgiveness of sins, to trust in the sufficiency of his atoning sacrifice, to have faith in all that God is for us in Jesus, is to “thirst” for him the way a deer thirsts and yearns for water in a dry and weary land. It is to prize him above all that is precious and to embrace him whole-heartedly as the supreme and all-satisfying treasure that he is. This is what I mean in saying that we are justified and saved “by thirst alone”!