Dead works produces legalism. And, legalism produces dead works. What are ‘dead works? They are works done NOT in the Spirit of God. They can be done consciously or out of habit usually out of obligation in order to ‘comply’ with Christian standard. They are motivated by the natural flesh.
When we are saved by faith we learn that no amount of works can earn the forgiveness of sins we receive nor that we could work for attaining Salvation. See Ephes 2:8. Faith that is given by God is alive because it is found in His Spirit. Heb 11. Faith will motivate us to do works that God calls us to do. He, the Spirit, convicts and awakens us so we might do things that He desires us to do or not do. We learn in scripture that God desires our obedience rather than our sacrifices as He declares, ‘it is better to obey then sacrifice.’ To give to God offerings and sacrifices is generally an easy thing to do, it requires little effort and more importantly accountability. Jesus mentioned the woman who ‘gave all she had’ and how this was a good work. See Mark 12:41-44. I believe this is a good illustration of dead works and good works. The widow gave out of her need, where the others gave out of their wealth. It costs nothing to give what we already have, but when we give out of our own stores, where we will feel the hit – this is what God looks for. The implication is not only about money but also about our position towards God.
There are arguments to denounce any work to be done, under the guise of grace but I believe this conflicts with scripture, simply look for reference to ‘good works’ in the bible to reveal otherwise. For to be filled with the Holy Spirit and NOT have good works would be contrary to God! Gal 5:22-26.
The writer to the Hebrews explains that the ‘foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God’ is considered the basics of what it means to be a follower of Christ. See Heb 6:1-3. Jesus rebukes dead works in Revelation 3:1. Faith will die and is dead without works James 2:17. For works to be alive, and considered good in God’s eyes must be done in Spirit and truth which is an act of worship and what God looks for. See John 4:23-24. This is where I believe there need to be scrutiny. Not just to dissect our motive, but to understand the difference of doing things out of our flesh or by what the Spirit produces in us. We can be seen as the most sincere, dedicated and the most gentle godly person going but can possibly doing all we do out of dead works. See also The Road That Leads To Death