We describe a new numerical approach to constrain the three‐dimensional (3‐D) pattern of fault reactivation. Taking advantage of the knowledge of the tectonic stress field, the ratio of the resolved shear and normal stresses (slip tendency) as well as the direction of the shear stress is calculated at every location on the faults modelled by triangulated surfaces. Although the calculated contact stresses represent only a first order approximation of the real stresses, comparison of the 3‐D pattern of slip tendency with the frictional resistance of the fault can provide useful constraints on the probability of fault reactivation. The method was applied to 3‐D geometrical fault models in the Roer Valley Rift System (southeast Netherlands) which is presently characterized by pronounced tectonic activity. The input stress tensors were constrained by published stress indicators. The analysis demonstrated that the observed fault activity could be explained within a reasonable range of frictional parameters and input stress magnitudes. In addition a fairly good correlation was found between the predicted slip directions and the focal mechanisms of local earthquakes. This suggests that in the study area, fault models being valid in the uppermost part of the crust are suitable to constrain fault reactivation even in the deeper part of the seismogenic layer. The analysis further demonstrated that fault hierarchy and the regional tectonic contexts of the fault system are important factors in fault reactivation. Therefore they always should be taken into account during evaluation of the calculated slip tendency and slip direction patterns.