When James spoke of dead faith, what was he trying to teach? What exactly is dead faith? In the broadest sense, faith is whatever we believe. Our faith is our system of beliefs.
Some would have us believe that the works James has in mind are the rituals of the church- baptism, confession, worship attendance, prayer, bible study, tithing, evangelism, etc. Those who teach the doctrine of eternal security use these type works to determine if a professed believer was ever really saved. Others, who deny the security of the believer, hold a similar list of "works" as the requirements to hang on to salvation until death.
Were church ritualism and activities what James had in mind to enliven our faith? I am reasonably sure that James was emphasizing what makes our faith meaningful and therefore worthwhile. Any belief which does not impact how we think, act, and feel is not going to be effective. If nothing changes because of what I profess to believe, what difference does my faith make?
The difference between what I perceive from James and what so many teach is that the affected behaviors are not those prescribed by the church as listed above. Instead the works under discussion are the thoughts, activities, and behaviors which are stimulated because of our faith as we live our daily lives outside the church and separate from its rituals and prescriptions. Our works amount to our treatment of other people, our view of the world at large, the thoughts we dwell upon, and the way we pursue a meaningful life.
So a dead faith or belief is one which does not bring about a transformation in thinking and behaving in day to day living. A dead faith is all about church and never leaves its doctrinal imperatives behind to begin the real goal of living abundantly minute by minute.