Is Faith Meritorious?

In Hebrews chapter eleven, faith is defined as “being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” The author proceeds to list a series of biblical figures who exhibited extraordinary faith and who were commended by God for their faithfulness. Clearly, faith is understood in this passage as virtuous, as bestowing honor or merit on the person who exercises it. But how exactly do we exercise faith?

We routinely employ faith as another word for belief. For example, we equate faith in God with believing that He exists, or with believing in His promise of salvation. Under this definition, faith is meritorious and commendable in proportion to our belief.

But can we choose what we believe? Could you, for instance, will yourself into believing that you can fly? Surely not: one cannot will oneself to believe what one knows to be false. Rather than consciously choose what we do and do not believe, don’t we instead find ourselves in possession of varying degrees of belief concerning certain propositions? I think so. We can’t choose to believe the moon is made of cheese, or that Star Wars is an historical documentary because a massive constellation of influences, including experiences and knowledge, precondition us to eliminate certain propositions before we can consciously reflect on them. It isn’t at all clear then that belief is volitional.
If belief isn’t volitional, then how can faith be meritorious? We typically think of merit as being something earned, as the product of some virtuous action. But if we can’t choose what we believe, then it seems strange to refer to belief as meritorious. Perhaps faith is not merely a measure of belief, after all.

Christian philosopher William Alston suggests an alternative conception of faith that preserves the notion of merit described in Hebrews without relying on Doxastic Voluntarism, the theory that belief is voluntary. Alston posits assent, not belief, as the meritorious action of faith. While we may not be fully capable of forcing ourselves to immediately believe in the propositions of faith – the resurrection, for instance – we can assent to them and act as though we believe. Acting in accordance with faith propositions is commendable and meritorious, Alston claims, and can lead to the development of deeper belief.

This theory of faith has its own problems, but we can take comfort in the distinction between belief and assent. We all occasionally experience doubts concerning our faith, and I think it’s useful to consider whether these doubts are beyond our control. Faith demands fidelity to God, but only to the extent possible for a fallen human being. Even when plagued by doubts, we can still assent to God’s will and give our lives to Him.

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