In Bible usage “Works” refers to the effort put forth by a person to serve and please God. This effort can please God and demonstrate His rule in a person’s life; in which case it is called “Good Works”. On the other hand the effort may be misplaced and not please God, in which case it is called “Dead Works”.
Dead Works are “dead” because they do not give life. Good works do give life and hence are alive. So what determines whether your effort is pleasing God and bringing life or not?
If the motivation for effort is to love God, or obey God, then the fruit will be good. Now, this can actually result in the same action bringing life or death. It depends on whether the person’s effort stems from God or self; as Paul says in one place, “If I give all to the poor but don’t have Love, then I am nothing.”
For example, let’s say that a person serves the poor in order to gain a selfish end; as in wanting to impress someone in a governmental job in order to get higher in the political power structure. God would not count that as virtue. Another person may serve the poor in the same way out of compassion for the poor, and in that case it would be a “good work”.
Now, in the Old Testament God gives His people a set of “Laws” to follow. At that time it was His will that they try to use their will power to obey His Laws. However, we find out later, in the New Testament, that the Law was just temporary; a “school teacher” to teach the world God’s ways in preparation for the Messiah. But the original beginning of the Jewish people was a promise given to Abraham 430 years earlier; and when Abraham trusted God to keep His promise (and this faith got heavily tested and proved) that was what pleased God. So, when God said to humanity that He was instituting a new way, through the propitiation of Jesus, He instituted a better way where mere human will power was replaced by His spirit coming to live inside the people who trusted this new promise. Thus “we are no longer under the Law…but under a new law of Christ”.
Therefore, trying to please God by using mere will power to obey His rules is now a “dead work”. We are supposed to obey Him all right, and in fact now if we follow the spirit we “fulfill the Law”. That is, as we do “good works” we actually please God. Effort in the form of mere will power will not actually transform us. But as we trust and follow Jesus out effort now brings life because it is stemming from a new power inside of us; not just our will.
A great deal of confusion reigns in churches about these issues. Two major errors result from this confusion. Some churches still want to just use will power alone, and follow rules, thus staying in dead works. Other churches think that since we are no longer under the Law we don’t need to obey God’s moral commands any more. A good way to sum this up is to say that both legalism and license are wrong. See also Obedience.
The truth is that followers of Jesus will obey God’s commands, but only with his help. The believer still has to make an effort, but not just by following rules. Effort now is needed to be honest with God about our failed attempts to obey on our own. We have to learn (often the hard way) that we need the Holy Spirit’s help. We have to learn how to seek God and draw from The Indwelling Spirit in order to “put off” the old man and “put on” the new man.