Now these statements show first of all that Augustine was aware that sin is something which happens in the spiritual realm, namely turning away from the Ground of Being to whom one belongs. It is not a naturalistic doctrine of sin. But more important than this, Augustine shows clearly the religious character of sin.
Sin for him is not a moral failure, it is not even disobedience – disobedience is a consequence but not the cause; the cause is: turning away from God, and from God as the highest good, as the love with which God loves Himself, through us. For this reason, since sin has this character – if you say “sins,” is easily dissolved into moral sins, but sin is first of all basically the power of turning away from God. For this very reason no moral remedy is possible. Only one remedy is possible: return to God. But this of course is possible only in the power of God, and this power is lost.
This is the state of man under the conditions of existence. The immediate consequence of man’s turning away from his highest good is the loss of this good. This loss is the essential punishment for man. Punishments in terms of educational or juristic terminology are secondary. For Augustine, the basic punishment is ontological. If God is everything positive, he power of being overcoming non-being, or the ultimate good – which is the same thing for him– then of course the only real punishment possible is the intrinsic punishment of losing this power of being, of non-participating any more in the ultimate good.